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Ethan Zuckerman on why rich nations dominate news

Ever wondered why Nigeria gets so little media coverage and why places like Japan enjoy so much more attention from the world’s press? That’s a question that concerned internet intellectual Ethan Zuckerman while he was doing research work at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

“Japan and Nigeria both have a population of about 130 million people. But if you look at a major newspaper outside of the African continent, you are about eight times as likely to see a story on Japan as you are on Nigeria on any given day,” says Zuckerman who started developing what he calls “simple tools” to build a map of the news flow generated by mainstream media sites.

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Zuckerman started the project in 2003 after being intrigued about why good news stories in Africa get so little coverage. “I was thinking specifically of Ghana’s election in 2000 where there was a change of power. It was a peaceful, free and fair democratic election, but there was basically no discussion of it in the global media. I was very, very interested in why certain countries like Israel are perpetually in the news and other countries seem to have to work so very hard to get into the news,” he says.

The result of Zuckerman’s work has been hugely expanded into a project called Media Cloud that makes it possible to ask quantitative questions about what parts of the world, what individuals, and what stories are getting the most media attention.

“We have a system that subscribes to the feeds of over 10 000 media sources and we are able to track what words and what topics are most common in each of them.”

This enables Media Cloud to track, compare and contrast content to determine trends and offer unique insights about global media. Importantly, it enables the data collected to be analysed and visualised for a more accurate and accessible understanding of international media behaviour and patterns.

The co-founder of Global Voices Online, Zuckerman sits on the boards of Kenyan crisis crowdsourcing phenomenon Ushahidi, Ghana’s PenPlusBytes, as well as the US programs board of the Open Society Institute.

“What I found out early on in that research was that there was a strong relationship between money and media attention. If you are a high income nation, you are far, far more likely to get attention than if you are a low income nation.”

Zuckerman doesn’t believe that the media agenda is purposefully set for the benefit of powerful nations.

“I don’t subscribe to the theory that it is a plot to marginalise the developing world, I think it unfortunately has the consequence often of marginalising the developing world and it is something that we have to be very cognisant of, and careful about, in order to fight it off,” he says.

This greater focus on richer nations is due to a number of factors according to Zuckerman. “The first factor is because we are getting a lot more financial news and a lot less political news these days. In the US if I look at what news outlet has the most reporters it is The Wall Street Journal which is the nation’s leading financial newspaper. It has more international reporters than most other press, and that creates an interesting bias towards financial media.”

Zuckerman says historical factors also have their influence. “We have traditionally paid attention to some countries and continue to do so whether we should or not. Some of it actually is, very simply, racism. No matter what you do, Nigeria is a very important place to pay attention to. You can’t understand African stability without it, and in the context of the US, Nigeria is one of our largest oil suppliers,” says Zuckerman.

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