Global Attention Profiles – A working paper

First steps towards a quantitative approach to the study of media attention

Ethan Zuckerman

 

Introduction

On April 7, 2003, the New York Times carried a story on a massacre in the Democratic Republic of Congo in which up to 966 non-combatant civilians were slaughtered by warring factions in the east of the country. The story, authored by the Associated Press, ran on page A6 and took up less than a full column of newsprint. Amid the flurry of Iraq war coverage (to which the New York Times devoted no fewer than 5 cover stories and an entire special section) many English-language newspapers made no mention of the Congo massacres; nearly all that did ran a short excerpt of the AP story.

 

It seems unlikely that the New York Times would give similarly cursory treatment to a massacre of 966 civilians in France, Britain, South Korea or Israel. This disparity leaves us with a question: Is Iraq more important than the Congo?

 

While these may be uncomfortable questions, they are ones asked and answered  – implicitly – journalists and editors every day. When journalists decide to report on one story and not another, they decide what their readers will pay attention to. When editors assign reporters to certain countries, they decide what nations will receive major coverage and which will be covered cursorily. When news media outlets “embed” more than 600 reporters in Iraq[1], they are telling their readers that the US invasion is more important that the long-running multinational war centered in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

 

For an “apples to apples” comparison, it is useful to consider whether Japan or Nigeria is more important. Their populations are roughly equal – 130 million in Nigeria, 127 million in Japan. Neither is short on possible news stories. Nigeria, in particular, seems to have all the factors we commonly associate with headline news: crime, violence, ethnic strife and religious conflict.

 

If we define “media attention” as “the number of stories on a given subject”, the statistics give us a clear answer: Japan is roughly seven times more important than Nigeria. Searching the archives of seven media sites and two media aggregators, we find between 2 times (BBC) and 16 times (CNN) as many stories that reference the search string “Japan” as those that reference the search string “Nigeria”, averaging 7.28 times as many Japanese stories across the sources sampled.

 

 

AP

AltaVista

BBC

CNN

Google

NYPost

NYTimes

Reuters

WPost

 

Japan

362

191728

2589

9863

16800

3119

712

411

63

 

Nigeria

53

25361

1385

623

5830

328

119

42

12

 

Japan multiplier

6.83

7.56

1.87

15.83

2.88

9.51

5.98

9.79

5.25

7.28

 

A comparison of these two countries challenges some conventional answers we might give to the question, “What does the media pay attention to?” We might expect English-language media to author more stories on English-speaking nations. However, Nigeria’s English-speaking and Japan is not. Are our media outlets more likely to report on stories close to home? Nigeria is closer to the headquarters of each of the individual media sources than is Japan. Does our media report on “people like us” – i.e., people with whom we share a religious or ethnic background? Japan’s Buddhist homogeneity has less in common with the USA’s Christian-heavy religious pluralism than does Nigeria’s 50/40 Muslim/Christian split[2]. And the United States has many more African-Americans than Asian-Americans.

 

So why do media outlets pay so much more attention to Japan than to Nigeria? One possible answer is “economics”. Nigeria’s 2001 GDP was $41 billion, making it the 54th largest economy in the world, ranking between Bangladesh and Libya. Japan’s 2001 GDP was $4 trillion, second only to the United States, the size of France’s, Britain’s and China’s economies combined. As discussed in this paper, the distribution of attention in a single media source is more directly proportional to national GDP than to any other single factor – this fact goes a long way towards explaining the Nigeria/Japan attention disparity.

 

The GAP model is designed to examine a media outlet, or set of media outlets, and answer two questions: On which countries does this media outlet focus its attention? How does this attention distribution correlate to a wide range of factors? The GAP software polls the search engines of media sites with very simple requests – in most cases, the name of each of 183 nations – and compares the resulting distribution with other widely available data, primarily development data from the World Bank.

 

Why should one care about media attention? Several reasons seem apparent:

 

v     Trade – In a globally interconnected economy, there are at least indirect economic consequences to the distribution of attention. As trade becomes global, it becomes crucial for nations to be globally visible as possible trading partners. India's IT revolution has been a triumph of both education and marketing – not only have India's universities developed tremendous capacity for training top IT professionals, India has also "branded" Bangalore and Hyderabad as world-class IT centers. As a result, multinational corporations have felt comfortable outsourcing major IT projects to Indian firms, spurring a high-value industry. Some middle-income nations have been engaging in branding that is almost corporate, producing inserts for magazines like Newsweek International to promote their nations as product. In part, GAP attempts to look at how successful different nations have been at "getting their brand out".

 

v     Aid – Individuals, NGOs and governments contribute small, finite sums in the form of humanitarian assistance to developing and conflict-ridden nations. This money has a tendency to flow towards the conflict most visible at any particular moment – one might term this the "Live Aid" effect. Nations with less well-publicized needs tend to go wanting. After US intervention in Afghanistan, substantial commitments were made by organizations and governments to rebuilding that nation. At the time, many international aid groups expressed concern that other nations were also in need of assistance and that aid to Afghanistan – the high-profile conflict – might detract from aid to other nations. Now that Afghanistan is no longer as prominent in the global media, it appears that many pledged funds will not be forthcoming. Afghanistan may find itself short on reconstruction funding as those new funds head to Iraq, today’s high-attention country.

 

 

On a more individual level, media attention is important because informed decisions and opinions require factual input. Whether one considers the recent war in Iraq to be a victory for democracy or a tragic triumph of unilateralism, it is fairly easy for citizens to have and support their opinions in the wake of tens of thousands of stories written about the conflict.

 

It is much harder to have an educated opinion about whether the Hema or the Lendu are in the right in their conflict in Bunia, DR Congo, for the simple reason that very little, comparatively, has been written about the conflict. The New York Times’s A6 story on the Congo massacres is a case in point.

 

To evaluate the success or failure of the key media news outlets in informing their readers about the state of the world, more is required than an intuitive sense that certain stories are going unreported and certain nations are being ignored – what is needed is quantitative evidence.  The GAP methodology set forth in this paper is an attempt to supply this evidence.

 

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[1] “’Embedded’ reporters are mixed blessing for the military”, Josh Getlin and Tracy Wilkinson, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/television/134667871_embed03.html, accessed July 31, 2003.

[2] CIA World Factbook, http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook, accessed July 31, 2003.