Using the Internet to Examine Patterns of Foreign Coverage: African Events Are Often Not Reported Because Western News Coverage Is Strongly Connected to a Nation's Wealth

By Zuckerman, Ethan | Nieman Reports, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Using the Internet to Examine Patterns of Foreign Coverage: African Events Are Often Not Reported Because Western News Coverage Is Strongly Connected to a Nation's Wealth


Zuckerman, Ethan, Nieman Reports


The first week of April 2003, several hundred people were killed in ethnic violence in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Given the magnitude of the event--up to a thousand civilians killed in a single incident--and the history of violence in the region, it made sense to expect media coverage. Shortly before the killings, the International Rescue Committee published a study suggesting that 3.3 million people had died as a result of conflicts in the DRC, making the ongoing violence in the region the deadliest war in the world since World War II.

But the events in Ituri went almost unreported. On April 7th, the first day American newspapers reported the killings, The New York Times ran a brief Associated Press story on the conflict, buffed on page A6. Google News, a Web site that monitors 4,500 news sources, listed only 1,200 stories in the preceding month that mentioned Congo. By contrast, on the same day Google News showed 550,000 stories for Iraq, and The New York Times ran five Iraq stories on the front page, as well as a separate section, "A Nation at War."

While it's predictable that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would squeeze most other news off the front page of American newspapers, it's only one of several reasons the conflict in Ituri received so little attention. In their seminal 1965 paper, "The Structure of Foreign News," Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge proposed 12 factors that influence the publication of international news. While Galtung and Ruge's statistical analysis has been questioned, their proposed factors are still widely used by media theorists to explain the inclusion and exclusion of international news stories.

Galtung and Ruge, writing almost 40 years before the Congo event, could have predicted the events in Ituri would have been ignored in the United States:

* The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a "non-elite" nation.

* No "elite people" were killed in Ituri.

* There's little cultural proximity between the United States and the DRC.

* The conflict had little meaning for American readers.

* And the decade-long war in the region meant that further killings weren't unexpected.

Their analysis doesn't consider news-gathering factors--the difficulty of deploying reporters to northeastern Congo, language barriers, and the lack of communications infrastructure--all of which make it more difficult for reporters to cover the conflict in DRC, especially in contrast to the war in Iraq, which featured opportunities for reporters to be "embedded" within U.S. military units.

Global Attention Profiles

While Galtung and Ruge used 1,250 Norwegian newspaper clippings gathered over four years to propose their rules, the advent of Internet publishing gives us the opportunity to test some of their conclusions with hundreds of thousands of data points. Shortly after the incident in Ituri, I started collecting data from the Web sites of U.S. and British newspapers, news services, and television networks for a project I called Global Attention Profiles. My intention was to create daily maps of news stories to demonstrate graphically where Western media attention was focused. As the project progressed, I began to look for correlations to economic and political factors to explain the distribution of news.

My main conclusion: Andy Warhol was wrong--we won't all get 15 minutes of fame.

If this were true, populous nations like China, Indonesia and Brazil would be better represented in the Western media. Media attention, measured by the number of stories that mention a country by name, is correlated only loosely to a nation's population. It's correlated much more strongly to economic factors, especially to a nation's wealth, as measured by gross domestic product. For example, while Nigeria and Japan have roughly equal populations, Japan's economy is about 100 times the size of Nigeria's--and there are roughly seven times as many mentions of "Japan" as there are of "Nigeria" in the average American newspaper on any given day.

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