One year after Paris and Beirut: How to shake Western media bias

At a Westlake Park vigil for a terrorist attack in Iraq in July 2016. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)
At a Westlake Park vigil for a bombing in Iraq in July 2016. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)

Living in Paris today, as the first anniversary of the Nov. 13 attacks approaches, each morning my ritual of sifting through the day’s news articles feels more important. Not because I am remembering what I heard about last year, but because I am remembering what I did not: Beirut.

In November 2015, 1,292 articles were published by news outlets about the double suicide bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 43 people. That is a small number of articles compared to those written about Paris a day later: 21,672.

There is a big problem in international reporting. Western media outlets dominate the global reporting sphere and there is little to no coverage of the harrowing, disastrous and important news in other areas of the world.

This is Western media bias. Examples are news organizations that give more coverage to events in the U.S. or European nations and ignore similar events in other countries, and using different rhetorical tones depending on where the event took place.

For example, in a list of the top New York Times articles of 2015, stories on the Paris attacks in November and January ranked 17 and 53. Also included were four related articles to the attacks.

Notably missing from that New York Times list was any mention of Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist organization, or the 2,000 people it killed in a single raid in Baga in January. Nor is there any mention of the followingAnkara, Turkey, where 102 died in October; Garissa, Kenya, where 147 died in April; or the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, where 224 died in October.

The New York Times is not entirely responsible for this phenomenon. It reported on all six terror events mentioned. But the six events did not get equal follow-up from the newspaper, or from its readers.

Research tells us audiences prefer news they can relate to. Western readers tend to choose articles about current events in the West. It also makes sense that journalists and editors are also inclined to pursue news that is easy to understand and easy to connect with.

This “gatekeeping” — the process that filters the news depending on by whom, when, and where it is reported or edited — can be controversial.

But even if that is true, that doesn’t make it OK.

A 2012 study found that on average between CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, just 15 percent of content concerned global affairs.

Also, a decline in the traditional newspaper and television industries has affected the ability to report abroad. CNN, the leader in international reporting, has bureaus in only 31 countries. The airtime dedicated to overseas events has decreased as well. A 2012 study found that on average between CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, just 15 percent of content concerned global affairs.

There are also other challenges facing news organizations and journalists themselves in covering news in conflict zones — safety, government restrictions, geographical barriers and funding.

When journalists are unable to enter an area, are censored or are not given an assignment, the news doesn’t get reported. When the news doesn’t get reported, the news doesn’t get read. And when the news doesn’t get read, the news is forgotten.

And forgetting is one of the greatest injustices of all.

Social media is also a form of gatekeeping. Sixty-two percent of American adults get their information from social media. It’s also changing the landscape of how news is created, shared, and absorbed.

But social media and their users also have their biases. Facebook faced backlash after it activated its Security Check and profile picture filters after the Paris attacks, yet did no such thing for Beirut. In addition, 18 percent of Facebook users reported changing their profile picture to show solidarity with a cause. Forty-two percent of those users did so for the Paris attacks; for other terror events, that number was just seven percent.

Media advocacy involves addressing a number of systemic issues: legislative, economic, cultural, geographical, psychological, educational, racial. But there are a few things that media outlets can do.

First, we must get personnel on the ground to cover these areas. Western news outlets can send their own journalists to cover developing areas. News outlets also can support independent media there. Major news organizations could create partnerships with local media outlets in countries that they don’t have resources to cover.

Second, Western media outlets must increase international reporting in a way that’s culturally competent.

Third, the news must be adopted to the medium social media, which is becoming the preferred method of consuming news. News organizations must adopt some of social media’s qualities: short, direct, and engaging, especially when explaining and understanding complex issues such as war and humanitarian crises.

Fourth, we can support media advocacy groups in developing countries that combat censorship and government control of media. We also need to support funding local, independent news.

Also, Western consumers must engage with new information. It is no longer acceptable to live in our modern, globalized, Internet-driven world and lack the knowledge of foreign affairs.  

Do we care about all deaths equally? We will want to, but it is inherent that we will not. And yes, it will be impossible to report everything happening everywhere to everyone. Still, that is no excuse for turning a cheek. We can do better. The media, government, audiences: we can all do better.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Madelaine: your article reflects something I have thought about a long time. There is the expression: “the dumbing of America”, which basically means that by witholding news we contribute to the growing numbers of people who are increasingly less informed about global and also national issues. Even including people who have achieved a high level of professional success , but who are unable to carry on a conversation about global issues. It’s too far away; it’s not interesting; it doesn’t affect us….etc.etc. The problems of North and Central Africa, the Middle East and other developing countries are deep and long in coming. Unless we understand the cultural and economic issues that prompt unrest and war we cannot attempt to solve them by sending our y oung men in uniform to stabilize their situation. The value of people in other places should be the same as in our own country.
    I am so pleased you have focused on this important subject. Enjoy your stay in France. I’m sure you will benefit greatly from your experience. I believe in being a citizen of the world; glad I have three granddaughters who do the same. Love you. Bonma.

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