U.S. media lacks global perspective, critics say

by Tom Ford

The U.S. media coverage of last month’s attacks has come under scrutiny from both international communication professionals and University professors.

While some criticisms of American media are not unique, critics argue that coverage by major U.S. newspapers and television networks has been biased and incomplete, caused in part by the rapid decline of international stories in print and broadcast media.

“In an international crisis or tragedy like this it’s very difficult for news media not to take sides,” said Tsan-Kuo Chang, a University journalism professor.

Chang, who teaches a world communications systems course, said he’s noticed much broader coverage in Chinese and Taiwanese newspapers that present both mainstream U.S. and Middle Eastern viewpoints of the attacks.

From the start, U.S. media characterized the assault as “terrorist” attacks, he said. In crisis situations the press often becomes reliant on the government and official sources and so, Chang said, the media reports from that viewpoint.

In contrast, Reuters, the 150-year-old world news organization, issued a statement last week saying Reuters policy is to not include “emotive terms,” primarily “terrorist,” in its reports. The organization said this allows readers to make their own judgments of the facts.

“We do not characterize the subjects of news stories, but instead report their actions, identity and background,” the Sept. 25 statement said.

The Reuters statement said the policy insured the integrity of stories and the safety of its journalists “in hot spots around the world.”

In a similar vein, an e-mail declaration titled “A Call for Responsible Journalism” circulated this week among communication scholars across the country.

Authored by communication professors Clemencia Rodriguez at the University of Oklahoma and Robert Huesca at Trinity University, the statement derided the media’s “singular and relentless” use of the “war” metaphor and reliance on current government and military officials as experts.

Rodriguez said this practice has excluded diverse perspectives, such as those of peace activists or community leaders.

“Reporters have to go out of their ways to find other sources,” Rodriguez said.

But that task is difficult, she said, since most media organizations require journalists to write stories as quickly as they can.

She said that journalistic trait contributed to attack coverage – particularly on television – that displayed a “complete lack of historical context.”

For instance, she said, there have been scant references by U.S. media to the role the country has played in supporting and funding Afghanistan during its conflict with the Soviet Union.

This limited coverage, she said, has led to the perception that these attacks “came out of the blue.”

Rodriguez said the problem of incomplete reporting is not unique to U.S. media, but is an issue for reporters around the world who work for organizations owned by profit-minded corporations.

Chin-Chuan Lee, a University journalism professor, said as corporations have bought media outlets, newspapers and television networks cut staff, and foreign coverage sharply declined.

For example, he said, a Center for Media and Public Affairs study showed international news reports on television networks declined from 45 percent in the 1970s to 14 percent in 1995.

While this phenomenon is not limited to the United States, Lee said the nation’s world status paradoxically makes U.S. media uniquely limited in their foreign coverage.

“(The United States) is the only superpower left,” Lee said. “You’d expect the media to do a better job.”

But Michael Haley, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Communications Association, said most U.S. newspapers exhibit a lack of focus on multicultural or international aspects of stories.

“To find international news (in America) is major work,” Haley said.

He said since they have limited access to international stories, most Americans were surprised at the sophistication of the group or groups that carried out the attacks.

“(The American media) doesn’t do a good job of educating the public in non-crisis events,” Haley said.

Limited and sporadic international coverage, he said, keeps the public ignorant of foreign news and affects the way it judges certain groups.

“If people only hear of crises a group is involved in, they’ll be viewed with suspicion,” he said.


Tom Ford welcomes comments at [email protected]