Media Double Standards

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the photo that accompanies it and you see a collapsed apartment block.

It’s a striking picture. Unfortunately it was taken 10 years ago, when Taipei was hit by a devastating earthquake that claimed more than 2400 lives. I appreciate editors are under pressure to find visually arresting images and that there might not have been any good enough ones ready to go. But I wonder whether the cutbacks that US newspapers (and indeed newspapers around the world) are making with foreign bureaus and correspondents could mean less scrutiny and a poorer end product.

Setting images aside, foreign coverage can run the risk of being undermined through careless word choice. A case in point is a word that gets bandied around far too often in Western coverage of Asia–nationalist. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for example, was just one of many Asian leaders described as a ‘nationalist’ in a region where the word still has an ugly ring to it. There’s a strong argument to be made that he was. But was he really much more so than many, even most, ‘patriotic’ US presidents?

Listen to US politicians and their speeches are often littered with references to ‘only in America’ and the justness of America using force in pursuit of its values. My point is not that US politicians are any more nationalistic than Asia’s leaders–politicians the world over understandably talk up their country. It’s just that by choosing one word for our ‘familiar’ Western leaders and another, less warm and fuzzy one for Asia’s, that Western media creates a sense of ‘otherness’ that eventually seeps into mainstream consciousness and can undermine understanding of other nations when it is needed most.

This is only a more subtle example of a related problem brought home to me by one of our correspondents who told me a few months back how a US magazine that ran a piece he penned on an insurgency changed the word ‘insurgents’ to ‘terrorist group.’

Presumably it was changed in an effort to spice up the story and not because the editor had any particularly strong attachment to what the movement has done (it wasn’t the Taliban or al-Qaeda he was writing about, incidentally.)

But I’d hope that a good rule of thumb for every story would be that we treat it as if it’s the only piece a person might ever have read about an issue, and so balance and accuracy are of paramount importance. We’ll all get it wrong sometimes. But we need to at least try.

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