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The American media and the Bali Bombing - why it didn't rate well

By Andrew Leigh and Justin Wolfers - posted Tuesday, 11 June 2002

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 attention.


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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This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 1 November, 2002.

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About the Authors

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

Dr Justin Wolfers is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Business and Public Policy Department of the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Andrew Leigh
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Related Links
Andrew Leigh's home page
Justin Wolfers's home page
Malcolm Weiner Center for Social Policy
Stanford Business School
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