Magazine article New Internationalist

Why Do Some Conflicts Get More Media Coverage Than Others?

Magazine article New Internationalist

Why Do Some Conflicts Get More Media Coverage Than Others?

Article excerpt

In just a few seconds, the singing and whistling turned to screaming. Many of the women who had gathered to demand that Laurent Gbagbo, Côte d'lvoire's then step down were now on the floor, surrounded by pools of blood. In the background, military armoured personnel carriers sped from the scene with their smoking guns.

This massacre in March 2011, which left seven dead and more than 100 injured, was captured on video and released on YouTube. It was a prime candidate for global media attention and outrage... which failed to materialize.

"That video clip was a perfect storm - unarmed women being gunned down, the military clearly visible - but it received very little coverage,' says Virgil Hawkins, author of Stealth Conflicts: How the World's Worst Violence is Ignored. 'The world was too occupied with the war in Libya, and Egypt had just had its revolution, so Côte d'Ivoire simply didn't fit the bill in terms of context.'

Throughout history, many of the world's deadliest conflicts, particularly those in Africa, have been frozen out of the mainstream media. Perhaps the ultimate illustration of this is the war in and around the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that began in the late 1990s. More than five million people died as a direct result of this conflict, the vast majority from preventable disease and starvation, making it the deadliest in the past 50 years. Yet most of the world remained oblivious.

'I don't think there's a better example of the lack of balance in international news coverage,' says Guy Golan, Associate Professor of Public Relations at Syracuse University, New York. 'This was called the "African World War" and the Western media almost completely ignored it.'

In the same period, major Western news corporations devoted 50 times more coverage to conflict in Israel-Palestine, which between 1987 and 2007 led to around 7,000 deaths.1 In 1999, the war in Kosovo, where around 2,000 people died, received more attention and aid money than all of Africa's humanitarian emergencies combined.2 The border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea around the same time led to more than 100,000 deaths but coverage of it was negligible. We have seen how terrorist attacks on a Spanish train in 2004 and a London bus in 2005 led to an international media frenzy, but when more than 250 people were killed on a train bombed by rebels in Angola in 2001, the event received little, if any, airtime or column inches. The examples run on and on but the question remains: why, exactly, is some violence ignored?

Virgil Hawkins argues that several factors influence whether a conflict gets covered in the media, including its political significance and its proximity, both geographically and culturally, to the nation covering it.

'Most importantly, the conflict has to be of national and political interest,' he says. 'It also makes a difference if it is happening nearby and people are able to identify with it. If we see people in cars and large buildings getting bombed, we are more likely to identify with it than if the same thing is happening to people in mud huts.'

This idea of national interest includes strategic military and economic concerns - are they a military or terrorist threat; do they have oil? - whereas the ability to identify can be affected by language, religion or historical ties, but is all too often reduced to such crude measures as skin colour. Black-on-black violence in Africa seems to hold little interest to the Western world, but throw in a Caucasian angle (such as white farmers being forced from their land in Zimbabwe in 2000), and international limelight is likely.

Political parallels

Along with national interest is how 'interesting' your nation is.

'If a nation is a "core nation" - a large, economically powerful nation such as the US, China, Russia, Germany and so on - then it's more likely to receive coverage from the international media,' says Golan. 'If you are a "peripheral nation", a small developing country, the chances of receiving international coverage are very low, unless something extraordinary happens. …

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