This post should not be seen as a complete analysis, but rather as a scratch on the surface. I use this space to begin exploring certain ideas, concepts, and practices that structure the way we learn about current events. I am becoming more interested in how narratives are constructed, and how certain power dynamics find their way into the public sphere through the media. For me, the media oftentimes no longer is just a tool for meaning-making, but functions to reinforce societal hierarchies, deliberately or not. This post reflects my personal thoughts based on a very limited set of news stories and I am aware of the limitations that come with that. I am very open to productive criticism and widening my perspective!
Long story short, Indonesia got hit by an earthquake two nights ago, on August 5th, and I wanted to see how different news sources reported the event. I focused eleven national news sources from four different countries USA (CNN, CBS, New York Times), UK (BBC, The Guardian, The Independent), Germany (FAZ, Tagesschau, Ntv), and Indonesia (Kompas, Jakarta Post), and looked at coverage from Monday morning, August 6th (local time), including one article per news channel.
Whose voices are heard?
A few questions that I’ve been asking myself more frequently when reading (news) articles are who is given a voice, who gets to shape the narrative, why them, who is left out from the conversation, and which effects do these aspects have on our reading.
To answer these questions for the reporting of the most recent earthquake in Indonesia, I looked at direct and indirect quotes. As the table below shows local news channels exclusively relied on local sources, whereas foreign channels also included statements by tourists.
What effects does this have?
The effects, of course, depend largely on the audience. Take for example the two Indonesian news sources (in fact, the German ones too) only authoritative local sources were quoted. These were used to describe the current situation and the next steps factually. The effect this has on the reader, especially if they are local is that it reassures them the government is working to get the situation under control and that the country is united in these difficult times.
Compare this to the UK and the US articles, where the focus shifts to also include almost exclusively direct quotes by foreigners. This increases the reports’ newsworthiness by making them more interesting and relatable to foreign audiences. In a way statements by non-locals bring the distant disaster closer. However, it also adds a good pinch of sensationalism and emotion to the story. This, in my view, is strengthened by referring to celebrities and including snapshots of their tweets instead of those of local authorities (#NotAllNewsSources). Both US and UK articles also referred to Australian and Singaporean government officials, while the German articles did mention neither government officials nor celebrities.
People like us?
I came across an interesting book chapter by Stijn Joye titled “The local relevance of global suffering. Articulations of identities and cosmopolitanism in television news discourses on distant suffering”. And one thing he mentioned stuck with me:
After reading this, I went back to the articles and looked at how the media portrayed the locals’ and tourists’ responses to the earthquake.
To finish this up, I want to emphasize again that this post is highly limited. However, I think I got some interesting starting points to look into this topic a bit deeper. I also welcome recommendations for further reading, different opinions, and/or other aspects to consider!
EDIT: After discussing this post with one of my Indonesian friends, I became very much aware of my own biases, and the irony of only choosing “white” foreign media. I also realized I should’ve voiced the intention of this post more clearly. It started as a purely exploratory thing and things evolved as I went. However, my knowledge about crisis reporting and the portrayal of distant suffering at this moment is very small that I do not feel informed enough to draw conclusions (which would also be problematic based on sample size). I will leave this post as it is however, and see it as a first step to understanding these complex issues better and as an opportunity to build upon in the future.