Writer: Harry Zhao
Editor: Adelyne Koe
Graphic Designer: Nethania Nasya
With the ongoing news of the Ukrainian invasion and refugee crisis on almost every headline, it is sometimes easy to forget that similar tragedies are also happening elsewhere in the world, receiving far less coverage in mainstream media. There is a clear disparity between the media coverage of current news in the Global North, especially in Europe and North America, as opposed to the Global South. Without diminishing the gravity of the current conflict in Europe, we must also spread awareness and amplify the voices of people whose stories have been neglected or distorted.
What the Media Shows:
Most of the media that we consume, through news sources or on social media, is largely eurocentric. There is a strong focus on news taking place in the Global North, which are the more economically developed, modernised, and culturally Western countries generally found in the northern hemisphere. In comparison, there is less coverage of events taking place in the rest of the world - the Global South. This leads to an information imbalance between them, where people in the Global North have a limited and often skewed perspective of the Global South, whereas those in the Global South receive much more information about the Global North than about other developing countries.
There are a number of trends in mainstream media regarding the representation of certain regions, particularly Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The media creates and reinforces stereotypes of these areas that influence the way the public views them. For example, the media often depicts Africa as an impoverished, undemocratic and homogenous continent. This leads to the popular perception of Africa as the land of tribal wars and starving children. This view is denigrating because it is so overgeneralised, failing to acknowledge the cultural and ethnic diversity of Africa, as well as the complexities of Africa's politics. It also largely omits the role that Western imperialism has played in causing strife and conflict. Overall, the media deepens the perceived gap between the Global North and South, with the few stories that make it onto the headline being those that emphasise the underachievement of the Global South. Thus, the more positive side of news in Africa is overshadowed, such as the rapid increase in adult literacy and healthy life expectancies all over the continent.
Reasons for the Disparity:
Most of mainstream media's eurocentrism stems from the nature of the media itself. It is, and has largely been, produced by people from the Global North, directed towards people in the same area. Although all sorts of different cultures and media have reached wider audiences, Western media still remains the most dominant and respected source of information for most people around the world. Naturally, there is more focus on the experiences and perspectives of those in the Global North, and the content created by those living in the Global South is unable to reach the same publicity.
Furthermore, mainstream media is mainly targeted at a Western demographic and would mainly produce content that is relevant or interesting to Western audiences. Thus, the scope of news covered in popular media largely centres around events happening to mostly white people, or those in Western countries. The in-group bias causes the predominantly white audience to sympathise more with conflicts happening to those who they perceive to be more "similar" to them. This leads to the media underrepresenting people of minority groups or from the Global South, widening the information gap.
Case Study: Ukraine and Afghanistan
When comparing the media coverage of the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as compared to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, several clear disparities are shown.
The media has shown rather different attitudes to the two crises. Although both events had extremely devastating impacts on people, the narrative of the Ukrainian crisis focused significantly more on the heartwarming moments: the hospitality that Ukrainian refugees received from neighbouring countries, or the resilience and heroism of President Zelenskyy. Meanwhile, the takeover of Afghanistan was painted in a much more depressing light, focusing on the people's desperation and loss of liberties, showing little sign of hope or resistance.
Additionally, the attitude towards Ukrainian refugees from other countries were far kinder than what they showed to refugees from the Middle East, who tried to enter Poland from Belarus but were forced away. Some figures in Western media have explained the change in attitude by calling Ukraine "relatively civilised" and not a "developing third-world nation", propagating the idea that conflicts in the Global North are more significant than those in the Global South. Furthermore, the help and support that was provided to Ukraine, such as imposing economic sanctions on Russia, were much more than what was offered to Afghanistan, where many people were left internally displaced and vulnerable after the withdrawal of the US. The disparity in these reactions show that racial discrimination also plays a role in how much people sympathise with refugees and conflicts.
Other differences in the media coverage of these two events include how:
The media much more readily criticises the actions of the Russian government during the Ukrainian crisis, but there was less discourse surrounding the responsibility of the US government in the Afghan crisis.
There has been sustained, continual attention to Ukraine up to the present day, whereas the current situation of Afghanistan faded from popular discourse shortly after the takeover.
There has been significantly more coverage of and public interest in Ukraine and the invasion, with there being four times as many Google searches for "Ukraine" in March 2022 than there were for "Afghanistan" in August 2021, during the height of the Afghan crisis.
Media and Marginalisation:
The media has a tendency to overrepresent certain groups of people while neglecting or misrepresenting others. As such, mass media plays an undeniable role in stimulating the marginalisation of minority groups in all parts of the world, and reinforcing stereotypes about certain geographical regions.
It is important to acknowledge that events in the Global North do deserve the attention that they are receiving, and that poverty and conflicts are indeed prevalent in the Global North, as well as the South. However, the media often makes the reality of people in the Global South appear much less complex than it actually is. The information gap and media bias play a role in furthering the marginalisation of these groups of people, and the exclusion of their voices and experiences from discourse. Not only can it distort the public attitude towards people from these regions in a harmful way, it can also limit the help and support that people from these places receive if we choose not to give them the awareness they deserve.
In order to increase awareness about events unfolding in the Global South which have been ignored by mainstream media, we must diversify our sources of information and share them with others. On the one hand, we should not diminish the importance of supporting events in the Global North, while on the other hand, we should be offering the same support to others around the world who are in a similar situation.