While traveling abroad, watching or reading news stories about one’s home country can be an eye opening and, at times, disturbing experience. Unless you come from one of the world’s most powerful countries or an up and coming economic titan, one would quickly get the sense that foreign coverage of the homestead, if any, tends to revolve around natural disasters, major scandals, changes in national leadership, and manmade crises. I suppose it’s hard to expect otherwise, but there’s more to it than that. In addition to selective framing and coverage driven by such “news values” as immediacy, recency, and conflict, there’s also national bias. A recently published book by Prof. Bella Mody, entitled Geopolitics of Representation in Foreign News: Explaining Darfur, argues that the construction of foreign news coverage is determined by several factors, including history and context, on one hand, and national interest, on the other.
Through a rigorous analysis of foreign news coverage of atrocities in Darfur by news outlets in various countries -- including China, Egypt, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Africa -- Prof. Mody provides strong evidence suggesting the influence of national history and interest on coverage. And if we were to attempt to generalize the findings, here’s what we might say. Regarding history and context, the study posits that countries that share experiences deeply implanted in the national psyche, such as colonial rule, tend to produce foreign coverage that is less critical of each other. As regards national interest, a country’s news media tends to provide less critical coverage of other countries that are considered sources of current or future strategic international advantage. In my mind, these are aggregated manifestations of the desire to selectively present the world in a way that resonates with the national collective memory and avoids compromising possible national gain. It also seems like a form of cross-national self-censorship.
Mody argues that these drivers go against the media fulfilling their watchdog role, cross-nationally, because instead of reporting on causes of these atrocities –allowing for deeper understanding of the origins of crises, whom to blame for them, and providing direction as to how they might be avoided in the future – the tendency is to provide descriptive coverage of the ways in which events are unfolding, and to a lesser extent, possible remedies (what can be done to address problems, moving forward).
A more general point is this: the news media in different countries construct and frame the same occurrence in different ways. It seems reasonable to argue, therefore, that the capacity of international news outlets to serve as cross-national watchdogs is rather limited. Based on Mody’s research, this is likely to be true even among media outlets that are relatively independent from vested interests in their own contexts. Simply put, national biases get in the way of checking the power wielded by global elites. This problem is especially acute when these elites abuse their own people.
Considering the international system, as a whole, I would like to offer three thoughts. First, gaining a plural perspective on what’s happening abroad seems to require exposure to news produced in a range of countries with different historical legacies and social, economic, cultural, and political interests. This tall order is challenging even to the few who might already have access to a wide range of high quality international news sources. Second, those who believe they may already have a good grasp of international affairs might consider interrogating the news sources they regularly consume and make as honest an assessment as possible of embedded biases. Third, those who wish to advocate for broader and more nuanced understanding of events that may have impact across national borders might consider creating and supporting publicly accessible mechanisms for aggregating and comparing foreign news emanating from what are essentially biased sources.
Image credit: Lexington Books