What about Everybody Else?
By Jitze De Vries
Over 400 deaths. 600 more missing. A large city was the target of mother nature yet again, destroying everything in her path. However, as many of you might think of Houston, Florida or perhaps Bangladesh, these figures actually belong to a somewhere a shorter plane-ride away, yet somewhere that the Western-oriented media refuses to cover as in-depth as its Western counterpart: Freetown, Sierra Leone.
The bias of the media in its selective reporting on primarily “Western” news stories might seem straightforward, but it can be argued that this plays a large role in maintaining a harmful worldview based on the clear distinction between the “developed” West and the “developing” rest.
There are two main issues with the way the media reports news. As already mentioned, one is the selectiveness through which stories of tragedies in countries in mainly Europe and North America are blown out of proportion and made out to be more tragic than similar events happening elsewhere. A quick look at the coverage of recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium in comparison to similar attacks in the Middle East shows just this. Many try to justify this, for example arguing that the attacks are closer to home. Yet it is undeniable that through this skewed coverage, it is implied that lives in Western countries carry more value, as it is a normality that people abroad are victimized, but an abnormality that such events happen close to home. If we, as a society, are truly striving to see everyone as equals, it is important that the media must play a part in this and thus divide its coverage fairly.
Secondly, when other areas such as countries in Africa or Asia are covered, it is rarely anything other than negative. Academics have noted that coverage of Africa typifies the worst elements of media coverage worldwide. The coverage of the region is thus largely sensationalist and aims to evoke emotional response and guilt in the reader as there is often a donation message attached to it. This perpetuates the idea that developing countries, such as Sierra Leone, are constantly struggling and are not showing any progress. It keeps paternalist views alive through which it is the West’s duty to care for the poor children in Africa, Asia and South America, enforcing harmful stereotypes.
While it seems easy to justify the lens through which the Western media covers world news, it is undeniable that it is a harmful lens which must be adjusted in order to create a more accurate and equal worldview among the Western public.
What About Everyone Else?
By Nicole Garwe
Is Western media biased? Yes.
Is Western media justified in its bias? Well…
The deaths in Sierra Leone and the stories of families still searching for their loved ones are tragic and the victims deserve the world’s support. However, can we really blame western media for the lack of coverage of this tragedy and others that have happened before?
It has been argued that this bias shows that the western media believes western lives are more important but the fact here is that western media is just that – western. This means it is media that is based mostly in Europe and the United States. Therefore, it will cover mostly issues from these regions. Though in many parts of the world outside of the West, western media (such as CNN, BBC, or France24) is consumed, the reality is that these news companies are based in the West therefore they cater to western issues. People in Europe and in the United States want to see news about themselves, rather than some far away land in Africa that does not immediately affect them. Whilst this sounds flippant and unsympathetic, it is true that we would selfishly rather talk about issues that would immediately affect us over issues that do not.
Another important factor to note is the side of media related to aid. When natural disasters occur, aid organisations immediately rush to help the victims. Unfortunately, certain regions receive more media attention, and thus money, than others. Writing in The Guardian, Harry Thompson highlights that aid organisations are constantly trying “to capitalise on the public’s pulled heartstrings and setting themselves out to enhance their own popularity and prestige”. Media coverage and aid go hand in hand, and this quote demonstrates that where aid is sent depends on which disasters gain the most attention. Well-known NGOs have greater power to draw attention to a disaster when it can be related to somewhere nearby, rather than a grassroots organisation in a far away country with little funding.
The more a story has a “wow” factor, the more it sells, as the media tends to concentrate on the immediate impact, rather than with a long-term story. Hence why Africa, which is portrayed as poor and a breeding ground for unfortunate situations, does not attract as much attention as a European terrorist. As is argued, the coverage of Africa has always been ‘sensationalist’ and stereotypical. When tragedy strikes in Africa, it is deemed normal. However, a terrorist attack in London is not normal—it has the “wow” factor—meaning it attracts more attention. More viewers. More money.
So, is the West justified in its lack of coverage of non-Western countries? It is fair to say it is not justified but it is understandable. The question presents many underlying issues in the way the West in general views non-Western countries. Until stereotypical essentialisms are dismantled in education, politics and all other institutions, we will not see a change in the dominant narrative in today’s Western media coverage.