New Internationalist

Why do some conflicts get more media coverage than others?

September 2012

Since the end of the Cold War 12 of the world’s 15 deadliest conflicts have occurred in Africa – but global media has invariably focused on smaller conflicts elsewhere. Nick Harvey looks at why some of the world’s worst violence is often ignored.

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’Ivoire’s then president, 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.

Sven Torfinn/Panos
Frozen out: some major conflicts such as this one in Côte d’Ivoire in 2002, don’t make the headlines. Sven Torfinn/Panos

‘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?

Wars in Africa are of little interest to the West because they are happening to people too far away, who are too different, living in countries that are not ‘important’ enough

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.’

The 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.’

James Akena/Reuters
Forced to flee – civilians from the DRC leave their homes to escape conflict between the army and rebel soldiers. James Akena/Reuters

So, it is suggested, wars in Africa are of little interest to the West because they are happening to people too far away, who are too different, living in countries that are simply not ‘important’ enough. But some argue that the amount of interest shown may have less to do with a nation’s power or importance and more to do with the general contours of the global political system. Back in 1984, James Larson, author of Television’s Window on the World, found that two-thirds of US international news coverage was focused on the Soviet Union, with Africa, Latin America and Asia receiving hardly any attention.

‘The script of Western news media has historically reflected the orientation of the Cold War conflict itself,’ says Steven Livingston, Professor of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University. ‘Take Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and Central America in the 1980s – as soon as the soldiers left, so did the news cameras.’

The US-centric media script arguably shifted to the Gulf in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait (tellingly, there was not the same media outrage a decade earlier when Saddam’s forces invaded Iran) before diverting to Bosnia and Kosovo. After 11 September 2001, Afghanistan had its turn in the limelight, followed by Iraq (again) and, later, Libya, with Israel-Palestine on hand as a reliable diversion throughout. Such a busy schedule left little time for the Western media to keep track of wars in, say, Liberia, Angola or Algeria, where the death tolls were in the hundreds of thousands.

Mirroring the élites

But it’s not just whether conflicts are covered but how they are covered which, according to several high-profile academics, is affected by the relationship between the media and the élite Western powers. In the 1990s, Professor Lance Bennett found that those working in the media – as part of what he called ‘indexing theory’– would invariably ensure that their point of view on a given topic closely mirrored those expressed by government élites.3 While the press and other lesser actors could add their own viewpoints, they would usually fall within the accepted range of argument already set out by the government.

‘People can see a video of an atrocity in Africa and still not be outraged or even sufficiently moved to want to know more about it’

‘I struggle to find examples of where the media have disagreed strongly with domestic policymakers about who the bad guy is in a particular situation,’ says Hawkins. ‘If you are a media corporation you simply do not want to go against your home government on a foreign affairs issue as it’s going to be bad for business. It could lead to a boycott or even reporters being abused or attacked.’

While this ‘patriotism sells’ view of the media as a flag-waving mirror of government policy rings true in many cases, this relationship may also be the result of the day-to-day pressures of media production.

‘Much of it is driven by the news culture and the nature of news cycles,’ says Steven Livingston. ‘Journalists are looking towards the next 24 hours, so rather than hunt around for their own stories they end up going with whatever happens to be on the agenda of the government press office that day.’

This focus on the practical side of media coverage has led some to argue that more mundane issues, such as access – which can be thwarted by transport infrastructure, security issues or legal restrictions – will affect whether that conflict gets covered.

James Oatway/Panos
A Congolese woman lies hurt during clashes in the run-up to presidential elections in DRC, 2011. James Oatway/Panos

‘Twenty years ago I wondered why we were paying much more attention to Somalia than Sudan, so I went to both countries to try to find out,’ says Livingston. ‘It seemed to be a matter of pure logistics: it was simply much easier to get in and out of Somalia.’

But in this age of near-ubiquitous connectivity, citizen journalism, mobile phones and rampant social media, the problem of access may have become less of an issue. As we saw with Kony 2012, groups and individuals, however misguided, can promote issues to a massive degree through social spheres. Networks such as Wikileaks and Twitter can circumnavigate the prerogatives of state powers. Less and less remains secret. Even in North Korea, one of the most closed countries in the world, the fact that more than a million people own mobile phones was arguably why its leaders admitted to a missile launch failure in April.

The case appears strong, but could this idea that technology is changing the old order merely be an illusion? ‘Everyone’s talking about the Facebook revolution and the power of YouTube, but look at the massacre of those women in Côte d’Ivoire,’ says Hawkins. ‘People can see a video of an atrocity in Africa, that no-one can mistake for anything but an atrocity, and still not be outraged or even sufficiently moved to want to know more about it.’

Like a football game

One reason this footage was mostly ignored could be that people had little background knowledge of events in Côte d’Ivoire because of a lack of media coverage: the classic vicious circle. It was also a complicated situation: the massacre was not an isolated incident but arose from tensions that had been simmering since the country’s civil war in 2002.

Similarly, the conflict in and around DRC, which involved nine nations, all with competing and overlapping stakes, was highly complex. Hawkins argues complexity is one of the deciding factors in whether wars become news.

‘It’s similar to a football game. If you want to make sure people will come and watch, you should only have two teams and one ball and the rules should be clear’

‘It’s similar to a football game,’ he says. ‘If you want to make sure people will come and watch, you should only have two teams and one ball. Both sides should be wearing uniforms and the rules should be clear. Once you start adding extra balls or people start taking off their jerseys or moving the goalposts, then you start losing people’s interest.’

Linked to this is the ability to sympathize. If there can be a clear-cut ‘good-versus-evil’ frame – particularly if the ‘evil’ side can be personified in a single figure such as Saddam Hussein, Joseph Kony or Slobodan Milosevic – then it will attract more attention not only from the media, but from NGOs and policymakers alike.

‘It’s like a Hollywood movie,’ says Hawkins. ‘You have to have your bad guy, your good guy and a bunch of innocent victims and, of course, the bad guy must lose at the end.’

Also ‘like a movie’ is the fondness of news outlets for coverage to be sensational. Research suggests that the extent to which an event is ‘dramatic’ will go a long way towards determining whether it becomes news. Explosions are sensational. The crashing of planes into buildings which later collapse is sensational. The destruction of a city by the most powerful military machine in the world using ‘shock and awe’ tactics is sensational. The slow starvation of entire communities forced to flee from violence into inhospitable jungles and deserts, however, is just not sensational enough.4

Nick Harvey is a human rights journalist from Northampton, England.

  1. ProCon.org
  2. Virgil Hawkins, Stealth Conflicts, London. Ashgate.
  3. Bennett, W L, ‘Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States’, Journal of Communication 40 (2), Spring 1990.
  4. Virgil Hawkins, ibid.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 455 This feature was published in the September 2012 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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