Each day, a web site run by Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, displays a fresh world map with the various nation-states coloured in shades of blue and red.
Zuckerman’s maps, which are generated automatically by computer scripts that trawl selected online news sites, contrast actual references to the world’s countries with the amount of coverage that would be predicted by correlation analyses with statistical measures such national populations or gross national product.
Parts of the world on Zuckerman’s maps that is routinely bathed in the dark blue signifying far-less-than-expected news coverage are countries in sub-Saharan Africa and central Asia.
The selection of foreign news in western newspapers is so obviously formulaic that media researchers have long tried to theorise and explain the news values and practices that allow events of similar magnitude to receive different coverage depending on where they are located. Perhaps the most widely-cited analysis of the problem is a 40-year-old study by the Norwegian researcher Johan Galtung, who identified 12 factors that interact to condition how western media select and cover foreign events. More recently, Susan Moeller simplified Galtung’s complex model into “four habits” of American journalists’ international news reporting. Major international stories, she wrote, are simplified into morality plays, sensationalised, infused with culturally-resonant historical references, and occur where there is a clear American connection.
According to Moeller, where extreme cases can be reported, “stories of more prosaic events are ignored or underreported”.
That is certainly the experience of journalists trying to cast light on one of Zuckerman’s dark spots, like the former editor of the Times of Central Asia, Filip Noubel: “Last time I was in London I went to the Economist and was trying to convince them to write something about Turkmenistan. They and they said ‘you know, who cares about this country really? It’s not making news: there is now war, there’s no ethnic conflict, it’s basically a no-news country because it’s so isolated.’ That’s the main problem: Desert and oil don’t sell if there’s no turmoil or blood.”
Noubel, who worked in Turkmenistan with the International Crisis Group, describes the secretive Stanlinist state as the Central Asian equivalent of North Korea.
One such non-story briefly appeared in the British national media on 2 March, when a news-in-brief item based on a Reuters report ran on page 26 of the Independent:
TURKMENISTAN: The president has proposed closing all regional hospitals, saying patients should travel to the capital, Ashgabat, for treatment. Saparmurat Niyazov — known in the state as “Turkmenbashi the Great” — said: “We must close hospitals in the regions, what do we need them there for?” Mr Niyazov, 65, has issued several eccentric edicts.
According to a search of the Lexis-Nexis database, no other UK newspaper mentioned the story, which the BBC’s central Asia correspondent, Monica Whitlock, had first reported the previous day. Another report, on the Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty web site, cautiously stressed that it had not been able to confirm whether the dictator’s verbal order had been carried out.
But Noubel says that the network of local anonymous reporters organised by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting have confirmed closures of what were already basic medical facilities in some remote provinces of Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan is an extremely difficult country to report from. Reporters Without Borders placed it 158th out of 166 countries its 2003 world press freedom rankings. It is virtually impossible for journalists to obtain visas, and posing as a tourist has become increasingly difficult since a 2002 assassination attempt on Turkmenbashi, Noubel explained.
The few independent journalists in Turkmenistan are frequently intimidated by the state security services. Only this month, Viktor Panov of the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti was deported after being held for two weeks by Turkmen authorities who accused him of spying for Moscow.
Consequentially, the only original English-language reporting from Turkmenistan comes from the IWPR network and occasional broadcasts by the BBC, RFE/RL, or Deutsche Welle. There is little English-language reporting from Turkmenistan.
This scarsity of information and the lack of interest in what little does trickle across the borders is breeding the mistaken impression that Turkmenistan is a stable, relatively prosperous country.
“It’s the exact opposite: it’s not a stable country it should be the richest country probably in the entire greater middle east because it has the largest reserves of oil and natural gas but the reality is that people live in poverty and what’s worse it’s getting worse every year,” says Noubel.
Turkmenistan shares a surprising characteristic with some of the other dark blue spots on Zuckerman’s maps: they are often places where Western economic or security interests exist. The post-9/11 rash of Western media interest in the unstable states of central Asia has already dissipated, says Zuckerman. The same, he says, is true of countries that are allegedly being drawn closer to America and Europe through economic globalisation.
“We are largely unaware of the political situation in these countries that are essentially supporting our daily consumption — our food and clothing etc. There’s a really profound disengagement and alienation going on there,” says Zuckerman.
What worries Zuckerman is that the Internet is, contrary to some expectations, doing little to diversify the sources of information available.
“Assume that on any give day the news wires introduce 200 different stories, and assume that a major paper like the Times or the Guardian picks up 40 or 50 of them. To what extent to bloggers reinforce some of those stories and not reinforce others? Do bloggers catch any of the 150 that the Times decided not to run, or do bloggers catch the 50 that the Times runs?”
In the next stages of his research, Zuckerman plans to compare headlines from the BBC and the New York Times with data from weblog tracking service Technorati, in order to see whether the emerging “citizen media” are merely exacerbating the selection biases of journalism.
Zuckerman’s hypothesis is bleak: “My contention is that that way that blogs are working right now is not doing creative new reporting that we might have hoped that they would do, but are largely doing selective amplification.”
“When journalists don’t cover parts of the globe, webloggers are like an amplifier without a guitar — they have no signal to reinforce,” wrote Zuckerman in one paper describing his research.
While it is easy to identify the places where closing all the hospitals fails to become news, its far less obvious how to interest people in shining some light into those dark corners of the world. Zuckerman hopes that personalising the reporting will pique Western readers’ interest.
“It’s really hard to get people to care about Turkmenistan by saying ‘hey, you should really care about Turkmenistan’,” says Zuckerman. “It’s much easier to get someone interested by introducing them to an interesting Turkmen guy — who’s writing in English and saying ‘Gee, our batshit crazy president just closed all the hospitals outside the capital city — let’s talk about the implications of that.”
But that is an unlikely outcome. Turkmenistan’s people have become even more isolated since it was most backward of the Soviet Republics, says Noubel. “There’s an entire new generation that doesn’t speak Russian, has never seen computers, doesn’t know anything about the Internet, cannot leave the country because there are still exit visas — and those people have have no interaction with the outside world,” he says.
The best hope for the echo chamber of non-information may be what Zuckerman calls a “watch-blog”, carefully aggregating what precious little original reporting exists about underreported places. Led by Zuckerman’s Harvard colleague Rebecca McKinnon, a former East Asia correspondent for CNN, a “watch blog” for North Korea has already been established. Perhaps a similar effort is due for the North Korea of central Asia.