According to John Howard, Australia stands "shoulder to
shoulder" with the United States in the war on terrorism. But do the
Americans know we’re there?
Despite the hubris sometimes exhibited by our Prime Minister, the
recent tragedy in Bali has provided a painful demonstration of how little
attention Australia currently garners in the US public debate.
It’s not that the Bali tragedy was ignored by the American media –
merely that it was quickly buried. In the week following the Bali bombing,
the top media stories in the US were the Washington sniper and the
baseball playoffs. While Bali made the front page for a day or two, the
coverage quickly tailed off. Since October 12, the New York Times has run
234 stories mentioning the sniper, while Bali rated only 94 mentions. And
the Times is easily the most outward-looking of all American newspapers
– the Washington Post gave events in Bali only about half as much
On television, coverage of Bali was even more limited. Today, most
Americans probably know that the sniper has been caught and the Anaheim
Angels beat the San Francisco Giants. But our conversations at the water
cooler indicate that many are unaware that anything happened in Bali.
Why has Bali largely been ignored by the American press? In our view,
there are four explanations.
The first is distance: the Asia-Pacific is sometimes just a little too
far over the horizon. When foreign affairs are covered by the US press,
top billing tends to go to Britain and Israel, followed by the Americas
and Europe. Asia, Africa and Australia trail well behind. Indeed, stories
on the "global" war on terrorism frequently ignore Australia’s
position entirely. It is not unusual to read reports like that in the New
York Times on September 4: "Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain,
virtually alone among world leaders, came out today in strong support of
the administration's position".
Second, size matters. With 20 million people, Australia has about half
a percent of the world’s population. As a consequence, few American
reporters are stationed in Australia, and much of the reporting comes from
wire services. While scores of Australian journalists rushed to Bali after
the bombing, few US reporters followed suit – as indicated by the fact
that many stories were filed from Washington or New York.
Next, only a handful of Americans were among the nearly 200 killed in
Bali. While it is unfair to suggest that media outlets should cover
foreign and domestic tragedies equally, it is worth noting the magnitude
of the trade-off. Substantially more US column inches were devoted to a
sniper who killed ten people in America than a team of bombers who
murdered nearly 20 times as many in Indonesia. Moreover, this is not a
reciprocal feeling – Australian newspapers devoted almost as much
attention to September 11 as all but their New York counterparts.
The axiom "If it bleeds, it leads" does not apply equally to
all victims. Our guess is that a tragedy that takes place outside America
is likely to receive somewhere between one-tenth and one-hundredth of the
coverage that it would if it happened inside the US.
Finally, it isn't just that the print media is not supplying stories
about Bali – there also appears to be little demand. Internet search
engine data can give us some insight into what people want to know more
about. According to Yahoo!, the bombing ranked among the three most common
Australian searches in each week since October 12. Yet it has not ranked
in their top-20 US searches in any week. Instead, Halloween, Kazaa and
Eminem continue to dominate the American mind.
No news isn’t good news. But it does suggest that a little more
independence, and a little less Deputy Sheriffing in our foreign policy,
is unlikely to do us much harm.
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