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The World is What the Media Reports

The annual Tyndall report summarizes what US citizens see in the news. Doctors without Borders point to humanitarian catastrophes ignored in the US media.. Doctors without Borders criticize that Americans have much too little information about the state of the world.. "Media attention on terrible crises can have an incredible influence on mobilization.. However these enormous human catastrophes don't seem to exist for most Americans." Trans from the German
The World is What the Media Reports

The annual Tyndall report summarizes what US citizens see in the news
Doctors without Borders point to humanitarian catastrophes ignored in the US media

By Florian Rotzer

[This article originally published in the cyber journal Telepolis, January 7, 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.heise.de/tp/deutsch/special/auf/13899/1.html.]

The shock of the attacks of 9/11, the subsequent proclamation of war against international terrorism to the whole world and the Iraq war that is likely have at least one positive aspect: Americans who are mainly oriented through the television despite the Internet have learned more this year about the world outside the US. Still media attention is always selective.

Media are the collective organs of attention of a society. They select what is "important" - what is threatening, new fascinating and deviating from normality - and reinforce certain sections of reality through repeated reporting. The competition for attention seems to assure that events or information that have already found attention, above all in the large media, gain even more attention and are repeated everywhere. News is produced like big names. Everything gaining attention assures a corresponding social conformity of perception.

What people seek on the Internet or what they are offered on television is interesting on this background. Private television stations that must keep their positions react quickly to changes of viewer ratings while remaining attractive for advertising. For this reason, the media may have been under enormous pressure to patriotically accompany the policy of President Bush. One may probably only critically oppose a president whose popularity among people climbed to over 80 percent and whose belligerent attitude is obviously convincing with commercial losses if one doesn't want to become a niche medium. Even if Americans become skeptical toward their president, his policy and the Iraq war, the media strategy of the Bush administration has long proven very successful and could push aside numerous scandals and problems together with fundamental criticism at home.

Terror and War, the Middle East - and the Iraq conflict repress other themes

All this appears in the annual Tyndall report that summarizes statistically what is reported in the news by the mammoth US television stations. The report was limited to the three large television networks ABC, NBC and CBS. Cable stations like Cable News Network or Fox News by Rupert Murdoch were not included although they have become increasingly important in recent years. For example, Fox News is intensely rightwing and hardly balanced. The media obviously interpret reality. However grasping reality "objectively" is much more difficult than statistical evaluation of the broadcasting time for certain themes offered by the Tyndall report.

Every evening there was 22 minutes of news from home and abroad with the three broadcast stations. According to polls, Americans gain their knowledge about international politics mainly through television reports. In 2002, 60 percent of the 5,622 minutes of news broadcast time treated 20 top stories. In first place was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, followed by Iraq, further reports about the attacks of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. The general war against terrorism came in fourth place. Sharon was mentioned most, followed by Arafat and then Saddam Hussein.

Since September 2001, the consequences of the terrorist attacks were top priority. News from abroad dominated again among the broadcasting stations after the 1991 Gulf war. In 2000, among the 20 top stories besides the Olympic games in Australia, only three were "foreign country themes": the dispute between Cuban and American family members over the child Elian, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen. These stories with 1000 minutes captured 20 percent of air-time. In 2002, the reports of foreign correspondents captured 40 percent of air-time and half in 2000.

This does not mean that a more critical public or a public really informed about foreign countries has arisen. For the Bush administration, media attention is guided in the desired direction. At least officially, neither the White House nor the Pentagon have established a propaganda office. Little time was left to tackle themes like the economic situation, fraud and mismanagement in corporations, the entanglement of members of government up to Cheney and Bush in fraud, the health- or education systems or the environment. The fires in the US reached number 11. Altogether only a third as much time was given to environment themes as in 2000.

Reporting about the ruin and collapse of corporations like Enron or WorldCom captured 10 percent of all coverage. Altogether the news about the economy had the same share as in 2000. Seven times as much time was given to terrorism and twice as much to wars. The weighting of foreign reporting was clear in that reporting about the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl was three times as great as the conflict between India and Pakistan that could have led to a nuclear war.

What falls out of the collective attention and thus doesn't really exist for a large part of humanity is interesting, not only the "prominent" themes. If the world for individual persons or society is what the media report, reality consists of a few illuminated spots and many black holes. This obviously appears very differently on global, regional and local planes. Identifying what themes are not considered or fleetingly considered is difficult for distanced viewers who depend on media as selective organs of attention and are prejudiced or biased. Lists of themes that are hardly reported are defined according to one's perspective.


The Black Holes of Reality

For a fifth time, "Doctors without Borders" attempted to draw up such a list with 10 humanitarian catastrophes "not considered by the US media". The escalating conflicts in the Congo and Colombia were on the list for a fourth time. For the organization, the international humanitarian treaty leading to less protection of war refugees received little attention. The access of people from poor countries to medicines is considered just as little as reporting about "forgotten sicknesses" including sleeping sickness, malaria and tuberculosis for which treatments exist.

According to the Tyndall report, the British royal family was a theme of the news broadcasts for 26 minutes in 2002. 8 of the "Top 10" list of Doctors without Borders only received 25 minutes. Only a minute was spent on the hunger catastrophe in Angola and no time on the war in Liberia. The forced return of Chechnya refugees to their homeland overcast with war and brutality was just as little a theme as the spread of wars in Colombia and the Sudan. This was also true for other media like newspapers and radio stations (see "More Heat than Light" on the media criticism of an insider).

Doctors without Borders criticize that Americans have much too little information about the state of the world (cf. "Not of this World", Telepolis). This is critical in a time when global themes become increasingly important.

"Silence is the best ally of violence, impunity and contempt", declared Nicolas de Torrente, director of Doctors without Borders - US. "Media attention on terrible crises can have an incredible influence on mobilization. This attention is necessary for solutions. However these enormous human catastrophes don't seem to exist for most Americans."

This is not different in other countries. No media can report comprehensively since time is the scarcest resource and many things happen simultaneously. Attention is always selective. Media oriented economically in the market intensify this selectivity. Lastly, wider reporting is more expensive and must be converted into ratings. Besides the media concentration, a further concentration of themes occurs in the global competition of the media with satellite television and the Internet. This will even widen the black holes in reality. For these reasons, an increasingly important role falls to the information work of NGOs like Doctors without Borders, Amnesty and Greenpeace.

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