CounterSpin – Unnatural Selection: It’s only news when we say it is.

You probably know that a woman threw a cat in a bin in Coventry this month. You probably don't know that 75 people have been killed in Pakistan by US drones this month. This isn't anything to do with you or your interest in current affairs. As Musab Younis shows in this week's CounterSpin column, the importance of a news story has almost no bearing on the coverage it receives.

CounterSpin, Politics - Posted on Thursday, September 23, 2010 11:15 - 3 Comments

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By Musab Younis

In an interview with the New York Times this week, Woody Allen mused on the mass of inaccurate media coverage that followed his casting of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in his next film. “This is a trivial matter,” he said. “But the fabrications were so wild and so completely fake, and I wondered to myself, is this what happens with Afghanistan and the economy and matters of real significance?”

The Guardian‘s Charlie Brooker, in his column last week, had happened to describe a similar story. He’d read an article which expressed shock at the “ultimate … faux pas” made by a female celebrity who had worn the same dress two days running – except, it turned out, both pictures that the publication used to prove this point had actually been taken on the same day.

“No matter how small and insignificant the made-up story ultimately is,” wrote Brooker, “it shatters your faith in the media: faith you didn’t even realise you had.”

Allen and Brooker have extensive experience of the press, and would hardly be considered naive. Yet neither could fail to be surprised by these incidents. The point – as Brooker pointed out – was that, no matter how hardened a cynic you might consider yourself to be, faith in the press is rather difficult to lose completely.

Correcting for a particular bias in one report, or an omission in another, is one thing. But forming a perspective on the world that is entirely free from the influence of professional journalism is a different matter altogether. Selection and framing, for example – which stories get written, how they are presented – can be so subtle as to be virtually imperceptible.

Take the first process: selection. Why is one story considered important, and another ignored completely? In many cases, it might be because the first is inherently of more interest according to a range of criteria: it concerns more people, has a bigger impact on the world, would be considered more interesting. It makes sense, after all – the bigger the story, the more people know about it.

So it’s interesting – and even faith-testing, in the Allen-Brooker sense – when a cursory examination finds that this often just isn’t the case. You probably know that a woman threw a cat in a bin in Coventry this month. You probably don’t know that 75 people have been killed in Pakistan by US drones this month. This isn’t anything to do with you or your interest in current affairs. It’s just that the first story was a ‘big’ one – covered across the British media – while the second simply wasn’t.

The drone issue is an interesting one. A typical report from the BBC this week, for example, mentions that “twelve people were killed” in a drone strike, probably “militants”, in what is “the 12th drone strike this month in the region”, before adding: “The American military does not routinely confirm drone operations.”

The report is striking by virtue of omission. Nothing is mentioned of the civilian casualties of drone strikes – which were reported by Pakistani authorities to have reached 700 in January of this year (the figure now is surely higher), since the drone war began. Nothing is mentioned of the Gallup poll conducted for Al Jazeera which suggests that less than one in ten Pakistanis support the drone strikes. The same poll asked Pakistanis who they considered to be the greatest threat to their country – the Taliban, India, or the US. A majority of 59 percent said the US. 11 percent said the Taliban.

None of this is mentioned by the BBC. Why should we care what Pakistanis think about the military attacks taking place in their country? And the suggestion that most of them consider the US a greater threat than the Taliban is a difficult one, because it would undercut the central narrative of the news coverage of drone strikes: that though they at times entail unfortunate consequences, they are conducted for the security of the West and Pakistan. The idea that the US could be making the region less secure is, in this context, inconceivable.

Statistics have also vanished: such as the fact that this year, the US has allocated fifteen times more money to Predator drones than to the Pakistan floods relief effort ($2.2bn versus $150m). And there is no question of the reader being subjected to any uncomfortable suggestions, such as that made by the New Yorker last year that assassination, euphemistically termed “targeted killing”, is now “official US policy”, despite the violation of international law, and even the US constitution, that it entails (see this letter from the ACLU for more details).

The omissions are crucial to the framing, here as elsewhere. The news monitoring organisation Medialens, for example, last week wrote about the lack of reporting on another issue: Fallujah.

An article by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent two months ago had described how “Dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004, exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a new study.” Infant mortality was found to be 80 per 1,000 births compared to 19 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan and 9.7 in Kuwait.

How many other newspapers in the US and UK picked up the story? Precisely zero. That the US attack (with British participation) on Fallujah continues to kill Iraqis at a greater rate than the aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bomb is, we can safely assume, not a big story.

In other (unreported) news …

The Green Party of England and Wales overwhelmingly agreed a resolution this week calling on the French Government to repay the reparations demanded from the Haitian people after its independence, and agreed to campaign on this issue. The Green Party’s demands match an open letter recently sent to President Sarkozy, signed by prominent writers and activists. The demand for repayment of the historical debt was first made under former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who asked France to repay Haiti exactly $21,685,135,571.48, not counting interest, penalties or consideration of the suffering and indignity inflicted by slavery and colonization.

Musab Younis is Ceasefire‘s Deputy Editor and an MPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His column on the media, CounterSpin, appears every other Sunday.

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3 Comments

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Usayd
Sep 21, 2010 1:15

This is a fantastic article Musab, thank you for the detailed analysis. The stark example of U.S. aid to Pakistan is just one of so many contradictions. Challenging the media institution is almost overwhelming, it’s amazing(ly scary) how many people well and truly believe everything they see/read/consume.

Frank Natter
Sep 21, 2010 15:32

Great article Musab.

Tom
Sep 21, 2010 20:42

Really good piece. The ongoing coverup in the Western press about the use of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq and elsewhere is a disgrace. The effects are felt for at least decades afterwards, like you said in Fallujah there are several generations that will be born deformed and disabled as a result, along with troops who served in areas where DU was used coming home with life destroying conditions.

Anyone who is interested in depleted uranium should check out some of the talks and interviews with Dr. Doug Rokke, who was employed by the U.S. military to monitor and control the effects of its use and now raises awareness on the issue.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-VkpR-wka8

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