Are There Any News?

A few weeks ago, I encountered an image showing different editions of a publication based in the US, each with a cover specific to a particular market. The reason I’m not displaying to it or linking to it is because I can’t find it now, I hasten to add, not because I’m feeling spiteful or anything. The striking thing about the images? Three of them featured pictures of the devastating flooding in Pakistan, and indicated that the floods were a feature. The fourth featured something completely inane. Guess which one was the US edition?

ETA: Reader Paula Abdul (not that Paula Abdul…I don’t think?) found it! Thanks, Paula!

Three magazine covers. The one on the left, for the US edition, is about schools. The three on the left, for Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific, are all about Pakistan.

I bring this up because I am continually fascinated by the ways people get their news and information. National media tends to present information in particular ways and information that goes against the narrative is quietly trimmed away. Here in the US, the media thinks that we don’t care about or aren’t interested in the Pakistan floods, a theory supported by the fact that donations to flood relief have been completely apathetic and many people don’t seem that interested in following the story. So, the media feeds us stories it thinks we will like, stories to sell magazines and newspapers.

When I talk about the way we engage with media with people, one thing that strikes me is how many people in the US I know who pretty much only read US media, unless specifically pointed at media from other countries. They are entirely confused at the thought of sitting down to browse a newspaper or magazine from another country. My own media consumption definitely has a US slant, with a lot of Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times in it, but I also read The Guardian (naturally, I tend to read publications that publish me), The Age, Al Jazeera, The International Herald Tribune (a Times property, to be fair), Der Spiegel, The Independent, The Globe and Mail, and a variety of other publications not based in the United States; I note that many of these publications are conservative and I recognise that they provide me with a slanted view on events, but they at least broaden my horizons.

You can’t find all the news just by reading papers produced in your nation. Because your national media thinks it knows what you want, and it will provide it for you, ad nauseum, endlessly, to the exclusion of other news you might actually want or need to see. I want to know about things happening around the world not just because of a general interest, but because they pertain to my life, and they pertain to national security in the US. Having read a lot of media about Pakistan, for example, I immediately saw the national security concerns connected to the flooding, and was pleased when US papers started picking up on that.

I’m not a perfect media consumer and I’m not here to pretend that I am. I can and should be reading more international news, I should be seeking out more independent media in other countries, I should be reading more liberal media. But we all have to start somewhere, and I am often struck by the differences between headlines when I head to the main pages of various newspapers and magazines around the world.

It’s not just that the headlines are different, although they often are. Obviously, national media wants to present information of interest to people living in that country and thus things like election-related headlines big in the US (‘DA’s Race Still Undecided,’ etc.) aren’t so big in, say, Germany, while US papers don’t cover British environmental issues. I expect to see some variance in covered topics because the world is not universal and people in it have different interests. This is entirely reasonable.

No, what’s interesting is to see how differently the same news story can be covered. The same event can be framed in many different ways and a flip through publications from different countries will highlight the myriad of ways information can be presented, trimmed, cropped, and altered to present the desired picture. The very language of headlines varies dramatically from paper to paper; ‘murder’ in one case, ‘death’ in another, and so forth. It’s fascinating to me to see how stories shift and facts sift as I read the same story from multiple perspectives, gleaning odds and ends of information from all the different versions presented.

This is why it’s important to engage with a broad variety of media sources. If I got all my news from, say, NPR, I would have an extremely slanted and strange view of the world. I’d miss a lot of major stories, and I would have rather peculiar ideas about others. And, of course, I would be a compendium of odd news items and random information about hog farming in Nebraska and what have you. I am by no means as widely read as I can be and I miss a lot of stories, but I do try to keep my perspective as wide as possible and to get information from multiple sources, to push myself to explore lots of media outlets to get a more balanced view.

When we talk about how people in a country engage with the media, and we talk about what they care about, we also need to look at what kind of information is being presented to them. In the United States, for example, the media has a very long history of not covering stories about people of colour and nonwhite people, including stories that would be covered when white folks are involved. When people express anger and outrage that individuals don’t know about these stories, what they’re missing is that people only know as much as the media tells them. Some people don’t have the time to seek out news from a lot of outlets or to sift through large volumes of material for relevant stories. Some people don’t have the advantage of networks of people who pass around and share news to make sure it gets seen. Some people don’t have the resources to know how and where to look.

One thing the Internet has done is improve access to information, although there’s such an information glut that some of us are at risk of overload. It excites me to follow people from all over the world who talk about local events and stories in their own regions of the globe, because it exposes me to stories I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. And I know, conversely, that some of my non-US readers like reading my discussions of local news and issues, which is one reason I write about topics like marijuana policy and local politics, to expose people to stories they might not otherwise see.