Saturday, August 1, 2015

Who's Ignored and Why: The Consequences of Media Bias

Over the past several months, Latin America has emerged as the deadliest region in the world, with the highest per capita murder rates reported in Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela. The region as a whole accounts for 8% of the world's population, yet 33% of the world's homicides. The victims of this conflict are often forced to flee. For those who go to the United States, they first encounter a 56% increased chance of being deported from Mexico thanks to Obama's new "Southern Border Plan," and the new lucrative business of extortion and kidnapping of undocumented migrants in the United States.

Despite the clear links and inherent responsibility of knowing how our tax money guarantees or violates the basic rights of our southern neighbors, there is a significant, and I would argue irresponsible, lack of critical media coverage on Latin America issues in major English-speaking media outlets. Violence in Central America has serious implications for its neighbor to the north, including a massive influx of individuals and families seeking international protection, and the correlate glut of border security spending aimed at keeping these people out. Migrants from the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) make up the fast growing immigrant group in the United States. As we head into a presidential election year, it is more important than ever that the American populace has access to up-to-date, nuanced, and critical information on the crisis in Central America.

Turns out this anti-Latin bias is, ironically, well documented. In 2013, the Atlantic covered a study released by the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) with three-decades of data on global media coverage. They found North America and Asia dominate both sides of the equation, while Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa are the most media-neglected regions in the world (the database is weighted heavily towards articles from the past decade from Western news sources).

The image below, created by Benjamin Hennig at Oxford, literally paints the same picture, mapping the size of each country according to how often its events were covered in the Guardian online news in 2012 (excluding the United Kingdom).

(I'd like to think the map's author didn't intentionally make the U.S. the same blue as Veruca Salt after she morphed into an engorged blueberry in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory... but you never can tell with British humour).

This gross distortion in media coverage favoring the Global North can be partially attributed to the concentration of geopolitical power and readership, as well as national factors including the growth of local media markets, free speech protections and access to the Internet. The authors concluded, however, that even when correcting for these factors there is still a significant media bias excluding the Global South from the global spotlight.

But like any good theory, there are exceptions. According to a University of Minnesota study the media hasn't always given Latin America the cold shoulder. From 1981 to 2000 Newsweek, the Economist, and the New York Times gave human rights abuses in Latin America a whopping 42-82% more media attention than similar abuses elsewhere in the world. "When we control for other factors... including government repression, population size, per capita income, and more, Latin American abuses emerged as clear 'winners' in the unspoken struggle for international attention."

The reason behind it?  “Human rights abuses are more frequently covered when their continuation appears to depend at least in part on US foreign policy,’’ one journalist explained to the study's authors. In the 1980s, “the wars in Central America created a direct link between human rights in the region and US policy.’’ The correlation between content and coverage therefore seems to lie directly with our perception of our own complicity in world events. In the case of Latin America, proximity is not enough. We need a clear, direct link between action and reaction, policy and consequence. Without these direct links, implications or interpretations quickly become sidelined as pure political spin.

Since the 80's however, the United States has elected for more subtle weapons to safeguard its global economic and political power (as part of a global trend since World War II documented notably by Steven Pinker, author of Better Angels of Our Nature). Bush's military intervention in Iraq was, by and large, an anomaly in a global trend towards the decline or nationalization of state-inflicted violence (e.g. governments may kill their own people, but rarely will they cross international borders to go after another). At the same time, globalization and trade have created deeply complex relations among nations, making outright conflict or war far less profitable than it used to be.

U.S. involvement in El Salvador continues as strong as ever - from aid packages and economic incentives to stronger border security and increased deportations and interdictions in Mexico of migrants fleeing violence. But with no direct military or political link, coupled with decreased spending by most major media outlets on news infrastructure and reporters in Central America, the result is a woeful lack of English news on Latin American issues. 

When international relations become murkier - and our international global engagement cloudier - I believe it falls to journalists and international media to connect the dots and fill in the blanks. In the case of immigration - a topic that British news media finds has become increasingly skewed towards negative, almost hateful portrayal of migrants - journalists should challenge, not reinforce, our own biases. 

As the conflict in Latin America escalates, lending itself to splashier headlines, some outlets have caught on. A recent TIME article goes so far to call the conflict a 'war' with migrants fleeing north in search of a safe haven. But we need the media to go further - to take up their mantle not as reporters but as whistle blowers - to name the elefantes in the room. News and media should inform, not bolster our own ideologies. And we as media consumers can favor these actions - we can tweet, share, comment, and request those stories that challenge our preconceived notions, that give nuance to a critical debate, and bring to the light those issues that fill in the gray area between polarized politics and show us the human side to every story.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ya meet some pretty unassumin' people...

It hit me, walking through the Jacksonville airport at 1:30am this morning, that everything started there. 2 years ago. That's where I met my fellow YASCers for the first time, one by one, as we all arrived for this mysterious thing called discernment. I'm in Florida now for the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes where Cristosal is sharing our human rights work thanks to some serious helping hands from the 815 Development Office (mil gracias compañeras!)

But what I wanted to share has nothing to do with the conference. I arrived here alone, cold, wet at 2am. I set out on a walk this afternoon, past long stretches of urban sprawl and cloaked in a poncho that under favorable circumstances could be considered a well trimmed trash bag.

And I loved it. The smell of ocean air mixed with a chilly drizzle, the slow intentional way people greeted you on the street, if only with their eyes. I sat down in a small ice cream shop next to a wrinkled couple matching the cut and dry description of retired Floridians... until they started talking. One batch of sweet potato fries and a cup of raspberry custard ice cream later, I'd learned I was sitting next to the two-time national sailing champion and his wily mistress/artist friend who had sailed across the Atlantic to Greece in a steel-hulled 72' sailboat. Twice. "We were gonna go to Singpore frum there, but ya know, with the fighting and all, they just decided it wa'nt a good idea," she said to me, swirling the mountain of whipped cream atop her mocha cappuccino.

The rain kept coming down, and the ice cream shop owner insisted on lending me his umbrella. They had two after all, and I could just drop it off whenever it stopped raining.

I stood on the frozen beach ten minutes later, watching the sea gulls, smelling the salt, and feeling like I was in Seattle, Boston, and El Salvador all at the same time. There's something about slowing down, about letting the world come to you, that I didn't know how to execute two years ago. I stood on that beach in my soggy sneakers and just grinned like a fool, feeling the cold wind on my face and listening to my poncho flap in the breeze under a newly acquired umbrella.

There's lots of obvious things that have changed in two years, but something about coming back to the same place teaches you how your way of being can change too. How someone who has rushed and pushed and jumped her entire life can, against all the odds, slow down just long enough to see what's happening on this little abandoned strip of Florida and relish every sweet, salty-aired second of it.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Double Life

In Spanish, we say la gente está viviendo una realidad de violencia...
"the people are living a reality of violence." As if this were only the flavor of the week, and there will be a new reality tomorrow.

In my day-to-day, this reality is always present: in my friends' Facebook posts, in the curly-cues of an "MS" or "18" graffittied on street corners, in the horrific stories of families broken, women abused, and impunity paraded through the lives of those I love and know. I have seen bodies mutilated on the side of the highway, and the first thought is always gangs or traffic accident? 

This violence has never touched me. I have never felt unsafe. I have no past experiences for these stories to latch on to, no emotional response to equate with what these families experience. I am deeply grateful for this and would never wish to be in these people's shoes. But in the words of Oscar Romero, "there are things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried."

I feel at the same time ashamed and immensely grateful for my own immunity... for the privilege of my skin color, the wealth and the passport that protect me. But what do I do with that privilege? How do I account for it? For now, I go to work every day, I lend my gifts any way I know how, and often at night, revel in the simplicity of crime shows where you know the bad guy will get nailed in the end.

At Cristosal, we assist victims of gang violence, particularly those forced from their homes due to threats of extortion, kidnapping, rape, and death. The suffering is unbelievable, the lack of justice infuriating. Cristosal's work is to make it possible for the Salvadoran state and the international community to assist these victims - to build a future in which these people receive the justice and protections they deserve. I believe in this mission with every fiber of my being... but that future is still many years away, and this reality is being lived today, and tomorrow, and the day after that...

I am learning to receive this sadness, to hold someone's suffering, and to accept my own limitations without calling it failure. I want to fix this. I want to free a woman from being unjustly held in prison, save young girls who grow up with the expectation that at 12 they will be raped... it is the gang's right. I am learning patience in the face of sorrow, and the uncomfortable need to just turn off the bad news, cook and paint your nails as if the outside world did not exist. This post holds no answers, just the expressed discomfort of knowing there is no quick fix.

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