In an interconnected, digital world, we depend on the news media. They tell us what is happening beyond our own backyard, covering stories on every facet of human life from across the world. While a majority of news outlets focus their coverage on local, provincial, or national affairs, there are a few major organizations that make the world their target. The BBC, the New York Times, and others are hallowed in the world of journalism for their depth and breadth of coverage and their journalistic and editorial integrity. We trust these giants, and we should. Alternative news sites can be a great auxiliary source for learning, but they should not be put on the same level as major news networks. Often these major networks are taken at their word, and are the major sources of information for everyone from coal miners to politicians.
It is useful every now and again to compare how different networks cover the same stories. The recent attacks in France, Tunisia, Kuwait, and Somalia present one of the best case-study opportunities for reviewing the editorial practices of some of the most-viewed news organizations in the world. The day of the attacks I was watching CBC News on television and was aghast over the lack of coverage of the events in Somalia and Kuwait; while those two attacks were mentioned, there was massive coverage on the French and Tunisian incidents, and no details were presented on Kuwait or Somalia. I quickly discovered that this biased attitude was displayed in online news coverage as well. This post is intended as a quick overview of the coverage of several major networks, including CBC News, BBC News, Al-Jazeera, CNN, and the New York Times, of these tragic attacks. As can be clearly demonstrated, each network presented a clear bias in reporting, favouring coverage of the attacks in France and Tunisia; some outlets covered the other two attacks reasonably well, while others utterly failed to present the facts to their viewers. While there are likely different reasons behind this imbalanced coverage, it is undeniable that these news agencies displayed editorial bias against coverage of events in Africa, and to a lesser extent, in Kuwait.
Let us start with the CBC. It is the go-to news outlet for most Canadians, and has perhaps the best national and international coverage of any Canadian news organization. Funded by the Canadian government and yet highly critical of that government, they are a highly respected and well regarded news network. Their top story on the day of the attacks, both online and on television, was the global terror attacks. Online it was divided into two separate stories, one covering the events in France and the other addressing Tunisia. The coverage of the French attack used some very dramatic language, even in the opening paragraph: “A radical Islamic ties crashed into an American-owned chemical warehouse…[and] hung his employer’s severed head on a factory gate, along with banners with Arabic inscriptions”. That lone paragraph not only seeks to grab reader attention, but it highlights what the journalist and the editor believes is most important information: the attack was gruesome and barbaric, was conducted by a Muslim, and it was conducted against both France and America.
The story goes beyond presenting facts and editorializes the events, even in just that first paragraph, by presenting the attack as one by the barbaric Muslim enemy in the East against the civilized collective Western world. Government officials are quoted as condemning the attack as one of “Islamic terror”, and the journalist connects this attack to similar Islamist attacks in France in recent months. The story also connects the attack in France to the attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait, but not to the attack in Somalia. This story, features France and America as the victims, although the West is also the victim in the Tunisian and Kuwaiti attacks. (I refer to Kuwait as “Western” because the country has heavy ties to Britain and America especially, and can be seen as a Western proxy state in the Middle East).
The story on the Tunisian attack likewise continues the narrative of the Muslim East attacking the collective West. It highlights that the victims of the attack are predominately European, and that the perpetrator was associated with ISIS. Interestingly, they give the attackers name as “Abu Yahya al-Qayrawani”, the nom-de-guerre given to him by ISIS; his real name is Seifeddine Rezgui . The inclusion of the more Arabic sounding “Abu Yahya al-Qayrawani” and the exclusion of the real, distinctly Berber-flavoured name is indicative of the story the CBC is really telling; the West is under attack by a Muslim enemy. Like the French story, it associates this attack with the events in France and Kuwait, though ignores Somalia, because that story doesn’t support their overarching narrative of cultural conflict.
The BBC also connected the French, Tunisian, and Kuwaiti attacks, but left the Somali event out of the equation. The BBC did present good coverage of the events in Somalia, but the story was significantly shorter than those addressing the other attacks, and did not connect the Somali attack to the other three. The BBC’s balanced language and its depth of coverage over all events makes it the superior agency in this case, though it still suffers from some of the same flaws as the others. Al-Jazeera’s story on the Somali attack is likewise adequate, though it too was significantly shorter than stories on the other attacks.
The real victory for the BBC and AJ in this case was to present the Somali events as front-page stories, where other organizations relegated the story to the “back-pages” of their web pages. CNN, Fox News, and even the NY Times failed to give the events in Somalia the attention they so clearly deserve.
CNN’s coverage of the June 26th attack in Somalia was nonexistent. Even in analysis pieces on the three other attacks, the Somali attacks were not mentioned once. CNN did publish a story from several days before, on June 21st, when Al-Shabaab attacked a Somali government building. That story was brief and barebones, and failed to contextualize the events. They only background information presented was that Al-Shabaab is a terrorist group; the long and bloody history of instability and poverty in Somalia that bred the conditions for this attack are entirely ignored. Americans supposedly know very little about Africa, and the failure of a major news network like CNN to provide even the most essential background information on an important region of Africa is doing nothing to help that sad state of affairs.
The New York Times’ coverage of the Somali attacks was similarly dismal. This top story covered the attacks in France, Tunisia, and Kuwait in great detail, and attempts to link the three together under the ISIS banner, even while admitting that there is no actual evidence the three attacks were connected. The same eye-catching language is used at the beginning of the piece, “terror”, “ISIS”, “Beheaded”, etc. and the American connection to the attack in France was highlighted from the beginning. The piece painstakingly paints ISIS as a global threat that has directed attacks worldwide, and invokes language that incites fear into readers. Like the CBC and others, they turn the Islamic State into the enemy of the West, even when evidence of the direct involvement of ISIS is limited. Whether this approach is merely simplifying a very complicated story or politicized spinning is hard to tell. The Times’ actual piece on the June 26th attack is adequate enough, but like Fox News’s coverage, it was relegated to the “back-pages” away from the home page, and was not tied explicitly or implicitly to the other three attacks. Both these stories received significantly less traffic than those on the “front page”, obviously.
All stories do share the same basic narrative however, that the attacks in France, Tunisia, and Kuwait were carried out by ISIS; this ignores the fact that two of the attacks were likely “lone gunmen” scenarios, which typically indicates personal emotional distress or mental instability, rather than elements in a coordinated global war on the West. I ask though, is that political spinning by the media? Or is it simply easier to tell a simple story of conflicting civilizations, one that is very familiar to us in the West? Are perpetrators crazed lone gunmen, or radical terrorists? That question is frequently tied to the race and religion of the murderer, as the coverage of events in Ottawa, Moncton, Norway, and now in Charleston show. If the murderer is white, they are mentally ill, if they are Muslim, they are terrorists; their actual motivations and mental states are tied to the identities the media constructs for them, not by any basis in fact.
The attacks in Somalia did not fit the bill of “Muslim enemy attacks the West”. As such, the event was either ignored completely, covered inadequately, or approached as an isolated incident by the best news organizations in the world. The other three attacks which supported that narrative, by contrast, were presented in that all too familiar light.
The other possibility, as it strikes me, is that the West simply doesn’t care about Africa. This conclusion is especially likely when one considers the chief motivation of most news organizations: views/ratings. A top story about British tourists being killed is far more likely to be viewed in Britain and elsewhere in the West than a story about violence in Africa. One of the clichéd misconceptions about Africa is that it is an inherently violent place, and that major acts of violence like the one witnessed in Somalia last week are a daily part of life: what is one more attack there compared to a single act of violence in France? I’m not entirely sure if this conclusion is grounded in ignorance or in plain racism, but the altogether abhorrent lack of coverage of African issues in the Western media is plain to see. However the media tries to spin events to suit their own political and economic interests, we as consumers of this media must remember that black lives matter, not only in America and Canada, but in Africa too.
Most importantly, I think, is that we need to remember that news stories are just that, stories. Of course they are grounded in real events, but there is a million ways to tell a story without changing the essential facts. Every journalist must necessarily craft a narrative in their article in order to explain the facts to the reader, and every editor must craft a coherent narrative in the totality of their articles in order to explain complicated contemporary events to their reader in ways that make sense; the ideological and political biases of both journalists and editors should also never be ignored.
What then, are the kind of stories that demand telling? Of course, that is not an easy question, and it shouldn’t be. Let us embrace the complicated, the gritty, and the grey. In our connected and chaotic world, let us demand that our news organizations do not sterilize the truth nor oversimplify the chaos, and most importantly, that they aim for a level of depth and breadth of coverage that allows us in the West to actually know what is happening in the rest of the world, and to care about it.
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P.S. Immediately after posting this, I found out Russell Brand pointed out a few of the same things RE: Narrative construction in a recent video, which you can find here. Check it out!