nation: Afghanistan

When thinking about how media coverage affects public perceptions, many people think of it in terms of an “injection model”–that is, media outlets “inject” ideas into a passive public, directly affecting what they think (or, anyway, what everyone else thinks, since most people are convinced that they personally aren’t affected). Many researchers have argued this model depicts media audiences as having little agency when it comes to interpreting things they read or hear. People do ultimately decide what they think of issues, though the media play a large role in defining what issues are worth thinking about.

I have spent the last several days being mystified and annoyed by the number of news stories I’ve heard about Tiger Woods and his wreck and apparent affairs. I do not understand why this is national (and even international) news, and why news outlets from Fox to NPR found it worthwhile to have on commentators to talk about the fact that an athlete cheated on his wife.

Upon hearing my grumbling, my friend Larry (of The Daily Mirror) sent in this Google trends graph showing searches for “Tiger Woods” and “Afghanistan” during the last month:


The top graph shows searches for those terms; the bottom graph shows the frequency of them in news stories distributed by Google News. What was interesting to me is that news coverage has actually been higher for Afghanistan, with the gap growing during the days following the Tiger Woods story, but searches have followed the opposite pattern, with the enormous spike in searches for Tiger Woods in the last few days. It’s possible that TV media outlets have covered the Tiger Woods issue more than print media, so that could show a different trend.

But from what we see here, it appears that public interest isn’t being driven solely by media coverage, and any increases in news stories about Tiger Woods may be a response to an appetite for more information. That doesn’t mean media coverage doesn’t play a large part in framing public discourse–after all, we wouldn’t even know about the Tiger Woods story if it didn’t get some initial media coverage–but media outlets don’t decide what to cover in a complete vacuum, with the ability to get the public interested in any story they report on.

UPDATE: Larry sent in this image that contrasts searches for those terms with searches for “porn”:



Also see our posts on CNN questioning whether Jon and Kate’s divorce was getting too much coverage, which missing children get media coverage, the media shape reality, and coverage of Obama and Clinton. (via Alas a Blog) points out that the news media has consistently framed the recent U.S. killing of dozens of Afghan civilians as “bad PR.”  Consider these headlines:

Wall Street Journal


Washington Post


New York Times


Fair summarizes the coverage:

Early reports of a massive U.S. attack on civilians in western Afghanistan last week (5/5/09) hewed to a familiar corporate media formula, stressing official U.S. denials and framing the scores of dead civilians as a PR setback for the White House’s war effort.

The New York Times reported that civilian deaths “have been a decisive factor in souring many Afghans on the war.” As CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric put it (5/6/09), “Reports of these civilian casualties could not have come at a worse time, as the Obama administration launches its new strategy to eradicate the Taliban and convince the Afghan people to support those efforts.” Other outlets used very similar language to explain why the timing was “particularly sensitive” (Washington Post, 5/7/09) or “awkward” (Associated Press, 5/7/09) for the Obama administration.

The ease with which these deaths can be framed as a problem for the U.S. is a good example of how we can dehumanize the Other.  We clearly do not identify with the victims or their loved ones when the pain and suffering we leave in our wake is made invisible so easily.

We’re pleased to feature a post by Robert Hariman.  Robert is a professor of Rhetoric and Public Culture in the Department of Communication Studies of Northwestern University.  Robert blogs at No Caption Needed, where we saw this great post:


I am suspicious of references to “the Arab Street,” particularly when the phase is applied–as it often is–to nations and other vast swaths of territory that are not Arab or not exclusively Arab. Several years ago Christopher Hitchens declared that it was a vanquished cliche but he was misusing it himself and not surprisingly as he was blowing the war trumpet for the Bush administration. And he wasn’t speaking of its persistence as a visual convention.

The caption of this photograph at The Guardian says only, “Nowruz celebrations in Afghanistan.” Nowruz is the name of the Iranian New Year, which is celebrated in a number of countries by people of several faiths. The baskets of dried fruits eaten during the holiday provide the only visual connection to the colorful festivities, and you have to know more than the paper tells you to see that. For many viewers, this will a thoroughly conventional image of the Middle East.

That image is one of throngs of working class men massed together in the street. What little business is there is in the open air markets lining each side of the densely packed urban space. We see small batches of everyday goods on display–probably to be bartered for, no less. The open baskets of food are a sure marker of the underdeveloped world. (Imagine how many packages it would take to wrap up all that fruit for individual snacks to be sold in the US; and even in Whole Foods the unpackaged food is in closed bins.) Everything fits together into a single narrative, but the masses of men and boys make the scene politically significant. This is the place where collective delusions take hold, where mobs are formed, and where unrest can explode into revolutionary violence and Jihad.

Which is why I get a kick out of this photograph of another Nowruz celebration.

The caption reads, “An Iranian man skewers chicken for grilling as he picnics with his family.” My first thought when I saw the image was to check and make sure it wasn’t taken in Chicago. This also is a very familiar scene: grass, blankets, families and friends, plastic containers of food, dad getting ready to do the grilling.

What is astonishing is that I was able to see them at all. A typical summer holiday photo becomes a radical disruption of Western visual conventions when taken in Iran and shown in the US. Of course, it wasn’t shown in the US: this, too, is from the UK paper.

In this photo, there is no Arab street nor Iranian masses dominated by Mullahs and demagogues. A middle class tableau reveals that so much of what is in fact ordinary life for many people in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East is never seen in the US. And it isn’t seen because it doesn’t fit into simplistic categories, outdated stereotypes, and a dominant ideology. All that is shown and implied in the cliches is of course also there, but it is there as part of a much more complex and varied social reality.

As evidence of how things might appear a bit different, notice how seeing the second image can affect perception of the first one. In the second, it seems evident that the family is posing for the photograph. They’re doing exactly what they would have been doing but now with the additional, amused awareness that it is, for a moment, also an act. And sure enough, if you look back to the first photo, you can see the same thing. And if you can see that, they no longer need appear as a mass, or poor, or threatening, or anything but people enjoying a holiday. Much like people in the US were doing this past weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s day, thronged together, in the street.

Photographs by Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images and Behrouz Mehri/AFP-Getty Images.