Why I distrust US media coverage of foreign countries

(I came across this old blog post of mine from 2005 before I moved to FtB and thought I would repost it because it may explain why I am so skeptical of the way that the US media covers events in other countries. I have edited it slightly because I cannot help editing.)

In July 1983, I lived through a major upheaval in Sri Lanka where rampaging mobs raged through the streets looking for the homes and businesses and members of the minority Tamil community, killing and destroying everything in their path, with the government and the police just standing by doing little or nothing. There was strong speculation that the government had actually instigated and guided the events to serve their own political agenda, but since the government itself was doing the subsequent investigation, one should not be surprised that nothing came of it.

The scale of the events attracted worldwide media attention and huge coverage. After I arrived in the US in October of that year, I visited libraries to read the newspapers and news magazines of that period and was appalled at how the events had been reported here. I was shocked to find that the reporting by nearly all the major newspapers and news magazines in the US were incredibly narrow, shallow, biased, and misleading. The sole exception was Mark Fineman, then with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The reports were wrong, however, in an interesting way and with an interesting pattern. It seemed as if the reporters had relied on a combination of just three sources: US (and other western) embassy sources, official Sri Lankan government sources, and members of the upper and middle-class English speaking minority, the kinds of people who populate the cocktail lounges of the major hotels where foreign correspondents tend to hang out. All these groups had a vested interest in giving just one side of the story. (This was the beginning of my interest in how the media works and how it has agendas other than just giving the facts.)

To understand why this is so, one has to know that the Sri Lankan government at that time was extremely closely allied to the US government, and was adopting very pro-Western policies, strongly favored by the English speaking elites. So all these groups were anxious to disassociate the mobs from the government and to pin the blame for the upheaval on whatever convenient and mysterious elements that they could conjure up.

If the reporters had got translators, gone outside the capital city Colombo and beyond the confines of their luxury hotels and official briefing rooms in the capital, and actually spoken to more representative groups of people and local journalists and academics (which is what Mark Fineman seemed to have done) they were more likely to have obtained an accurate version of events.

This problem is endemic to coverage of fast-breaking news events in foreign countries. Journalists are flown in who know little of the local languages, history, and culture, and thus are dependent of little more than official sources and, if they do not have a translator with them all the time, the few English-speaking people who happen to be around who are usually members of the urban elites.

This is why I am skeptical of foreign news coverage of such events, unless they are by journalists who have a long history of working in the region, have knowledge of its history and culture, preferably know the language as well, and have over the years developed knowledgeable sources. So in the case of Iraq, I take seriously the reporting of people who have a long history with that country or at least the region and know the language. I do not bother to watch the “reporting” of US TV news anchors and journalists who fly in one day, do a report, and fly out the next day.

People like Juan Cole, who is not even a reporter but is a US-based academic, had more to offer about the invasion of Iraq than a lot of these foreign correspondents because he has studied the language and history of the middle east, lived in that region for an extended period, can read the newspapers and listen to the broadcasts of the region which feature the writings of the local journalists who are much better informed, and has a good sense of which reports are credible and which are not.

So when you read the news reports of some event from some foreign country, be alert that what you might be reading could be just the version of events put out by the US embassy there, the government of that country (if it happens to be friendly to the US), and a few members of the English speaking elite who have access to the foreign press and like to hang out with them at upscale bars and hotels in the capital city of that country. All of them have a particular agenda, a particular story to tell, and that agenda might have very little to do with the truth.


  1. says

    Shorter Mano:

    Why I distrust US media coverage of foreign countries: Because I’ve seen US media.

    I’d be interested in a follow up on this, btw. This piece tells us how the bias occurred and which sources were favored, but it doesn’t tell us what we should know that we wouldn’t have been able to read in the US at that time (outside of Philadelphia).

    I wasn’t even in high school yet, but I very vaguely remember this being mentioned in the US news, which I rarely turned on myself, but would watch when my parents did. If you feel like sharing anything more, I’d be happy to read it.

    As a shorter question, I wonder if easily accessible current sources -- if you want, we can just pick Wikipedia for one -- suffer in the same way, possibly b/c they rely on past news articles as their foundations.

  2. Giw says

    The US media is pretty reliably garbage on all subjects, foreign or domestic.

    Some more of its shining moments:

    80’s & 90’s:
    ‘The “slacker generation”‘ (they had more of a work ethic than the one preceding)
    ‘Japan has no stories of its own to tell’ (it was rated the most creative nation on Earth in a recent international poll)

    00’s & 10’s:
    ‘3-D printing will revolutionize the world’ (it already did, it was called the Bronze Age)
    ‘Self-driving cars will revolutionize the world’ (three months before SkyNet does)
    ‘Jeffery Epstein killed himself’ (and Jimmy Hoffa just needed someone to tell him how much they care)

  3. khms says

    In contrast, German public radio & television routinely stations reporters all across the globe -- not necessarily in every country, especially if there’s active conflict, but at least in a neighboring country. It seems to be a common career path. (As a consequence, it’s not exactly rare that they’re thrown out of someplace whose government doesn’t like the truth.) From personal experience, they seem to be fairly reliable. (They’re also not afraid to tell if they have insufficient information for reliable reports.)

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