|Global Attention Profiles|
Recent Research on Media Attention
Why GAP? Some personal thoughts on global attentionWhile GAP is an academic project, the impetus behind it comes from my activist work as much as from intellectual curiosity. In my non-academic work, I help manage a non-governmental organization focused on technology transfer and economic development in developing nations. Like many people involved with international development, I've grown used to the fact that it's almost impossible to keep track of events in the countries where I work from the United States. There simply aren't very many stories in mainstream newspapers about Ghana, Senegal, Mongolia, Armenia and Rwanda.
On Monday April 7th, one of sites I rely on to bridge my personal information gap, AllAfrica.com, reported that there was a possible massacre in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Drodro area of the Ituri region, a region known for deadly ethnic conflict. I immediately headed for the online edition of the New York Times... and found nothing. Three clicks in, I found an AP wire story. I went to news.google.com to see if other news sources were reporting the story. News.google listed roughly 1200 articles, most on the ongoing peace process attempting to end the deadly conflict taking place in the northeastern part of the country.
Early reports suggested that 966 people had been killed in the massacre, most with machetes. Like many Africa-watchers, I wondered if we were seeing the beginning of a massacre like the ones in Rwanda in 1994.
In my search results, putting these killings in context was a report from the International Rescue Committee, a widely respected NGO, arguing that the conflict in Congo has been the most deadly since World War II, causing 3.3 million deaths. So why wasn't this tragedy on the front page of the New York Times?
Out of curiosity, I searched news.google for Iraq. Almost 550,000 results. Roughly 450 times as many stories. I went back to the New York Times and discovered there were over 50 results on Iraq that day alone, constrasting with the single story on the Congo. I went out to buy the paper to see how the story was presented. The front page included five articles on Iraq, one on SARS, and less than a column inch leading into a local story. Those five cover stories complemented the full "Nation at War" separate section of the paper. The piece on the Congo massacre ran on A6 in a single column.
Two points of clarification. One, I don't intend to denigrate the New York Times. I consider them to be one of the most responsible and reputable papers in the US, Jayson Blair aside. I turned to them first because I expected them to have coverage on a key issue. (And, as my GAP research indicates, the New York Times is hardly the only publication guilty of under-reporting on African nations.)
Second, I do not mean to minimize the importance of the war in Iraq, the sacrifices made by American and British troops or the tragic deaths of Iraqi civilians. That said, I found myself asking the morbid question: "How many Congolese would need to be slaughtered to make the front page of the New York Times?".
With these questions in mind, I started on the GAP project. It's been in the back of my head for some time, as I've wondered about the media's lack of attention to the massacres in Rwanda in 1994. If we paid as close attention to Rwanda as we do to Israel - or even to Iceland - could the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsi have been prevented? I'd like to believe that we've reached a point in human history when genocide is only possible when the world isn't watching.
Part of the work of my NGO is promotion of the IT sectors of developing nations. I tend to be perpetually pissed off that friends and family don't understand that people in Ghana run web design shops, and that there are excellent Mongolian C++ programmers. Increasingly, I'm understanding that I should be angry with mainstream media coverage, not at my friends. It's rare to find any coverage on Africa in mainstream American media, rarer to find coverage of business in Africa. The same is true of Central Asia, and much of Eastern Europe and South America. As a result, it's almost impossible to have an accurate picture of what economic and personal realities, good and bad, are in most nations.
There's an obvious counterargument for my plea for more media coverage of low and middle-development nations. Perhaps there's simply no news to report on in some of these nations. I'm skeptical of this argument. Project Ploughshares reports 29 nations hosting conflicts in 2001, the most recent year they've studied. While some spring to mind (Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq), it's unlikely that most readers could name the combattants in Chad, Uganda or Burundi. Are these conflicts insufficiently newsworthy, or simply underreported?
I find myself wondering whether journalists find news wherever they bother to look. Are there really 50 Iraq-connected stories to be told by the New York Times on a given day? Or are there a lot of reporters embedded in Iraq who need to produce some stories?
Aside from its academic goals, the GAP project is designed to arm media consumers with hard numbers about the news we watch and read. Armed with a media source's profile, you can challenge the editors and publishers to provide better coverage. You can ask uncomfortable questions about what does and doesn't get covered. Or you can choose to alter your media diet - one of the early results of GAP research is a clear indication that some media outlets cover the world from a radically different perspective than others.
It's still unclear how many people died in the Ituri area on April 4th. Estimates range from 150 to over 1,000. Statements from the African Union and the EU condemn "hundreds" of civilian deaths, since no one has a firm number.
Perhaps if we had a few dozen reporters "embedded" in the Eastern Congo, we'd have a better sense.
Perhaps if GAP really catches on, we will.
Ethan Zuckerman, Lanesboro, MA, USA
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