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.

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