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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Media and the selection problem

For the last couple of months, the international media has been swamped with reports on Tibet and Zimbabwe. Every day, the BBC declares that it has unearthed a new scheme by the Mugabe government to kill opposition supporters or rig election results, “substantiated” through interview with one person whose face is blurred out. At the same time, every media from the NATO block has been publishing interviews by Tenzin Gyatso, ever happy to give interviews, on how China is spoiling Tibetan culture by building trains. Rather strangely, these newspapers and TV shows rarely showcase the other perspective. The British run Economist reports strong display of public anger against a supposedly biased Western Media as a manifestation of anger with the Chinese government only!!!

The British outrage against the Mugabe government is understandable given that white farmers have been dispossessed of their land holdings by his government. But all said and done, Zimbabwe did have an election where the authorities did admit that the incumbent had lost the first round. The NATO media has been rather silent about recent outrageous elections in Egypt or Georgia.

Like human rights organizations, media organizations also suffer from selection bias, but in an opposite manner. What is focused on by the media is often determined by the readership. As such, English media in India rarely touch upon tribal issues since they are of no interest to their middle class readers. No wonder most Indian newspapers in English have a separate section on property in metro cities while they never bother about covering market prices for transfer of land to bargadars under India’s current land reforms legislations. May be that’s also why the British media focuses so much on Zimbabwe as opposed to Egypt. Religious sensibilities of the readership also plays a part, a reason why Darfur (Muslims fighting Christians) gets so much attention as opposed to eastern Congo (Christians fighting each other).

However, in the case of the usual tirades of NATO block media against Russia or China, a subtle and invisible hand also seems to be at work. Why else do the media criticize the theocratic aspect of the Taliban regime while eulogizing the theocratic basis of the Tibetan government in exile? They are also typically silent about lack of any political rights in the kingdoms of the Middle East while taking an ambivalent stance on how Gaza has been punished for electing Hamas by democratic countries. The British press has also been surprisingly quiet about the attempted dumping of the investigations on the BEA-Saudi bribery scandal at the pretext of national security.

But in most occasions it is the sheer lethargy of going to a harsh country to cover, as a result of which the media commissions some local person to provide reports on a wide range of issues. Take coverage on India for example, public view in the west about Indian issues is largely shaped by the thoughts of just a few columnists such as Surjit Bhalla, Anklesaria Iyer and Vir Sanghvi.

And finally, selection bias creeps in because of the need to fill in pages. Try filling up a page with an article on the impending war between Djibouti and Eritrea, most readers will skip the entire story after just reading the headline, saying, “It’s always the same with Africa”. However, a story on Sarkozy and Carla Bruni can be nicely beefed up with multiple even recycled pictures of the couple to cover multiple pages. Even if it’s always the same with celebrities.

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