Reporting Bias
A “Humanitarian” Crisis?

Latitude – A cartoon showing a plane - labelled "The West" - from which people are jumping with parachutes. Below are two people talking to each other. One asks, "Help?", the other answers, "No. Reporters."
Instead of using local reporters, institutions use foreign correspondents who move from one crisis to the next, which is called parachute journalism.. | Photo (detail): © Patrick Gathara

Media reporting on the Global South is regularly criticised for attitudes more befitting of the colonial era than today's world. The terms used in relation to the Global South hint at inherent biases. A series of cartoons highlights these practices.

Though research has revealed gaps in understanding of how the so-called third world is portrayed, that terms such as “third world” or “developing country” have a pejorative hue and are synonymous with poverty, misery, corruption and ineptitude, while “first world” and “developed country” are not, hints at inherent biases in the reporting. Equivalent events are rarely described using the same language. “Humanitarian crises” only seem happen in the Global South, but not when 54 million Americans face food insecurity. Neither are the countries of Europe or North America regularly described as ethnically or tribally divided, or in terms of their resources or position (as strategically located or oil-rich). Despite systematic gerrymandering and voter suppression, US elections are almost never described as being rigged.

A Question of Phrasing

Latitude – Cartoon with text “CNN The Error Hotbed”
“CNN: The Error Hotbed” | © Patrick Gathara
In a report on the eve of US President Barrack Obama’s visit to Kenya in July 2015, CNN described Kenya as a “terror hotbed”, eliciting a sharp reaction from Kenyans on social media. It is notable that the USA and Western European countries that suffer or suffered terrorist attacks or in which terrorist cells acted, are never similarly described.

Dehumanising Coverage

Latitude – Cartoon on the topic: British media's dehumanising coverage
British media's dehumanising coverage | © Patrick Gathara
In August 2020, British journalists were widely criticised over their voyeurism and dehumanising coverage of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel. It is interesting that the estimated 1 million European migrants who lived in Africa in 2015 were never the subject of news reports and are never described as economic refugees. The preferred term is “expatriates” which is never applied to people from the African continent. In fact, African migration is presented as irregular and exceptional when research shows that the vast majority of it is anything but that.

Parachute Journalism

Latitude – Cartoon on the topic of Parachute journalism
Parachute journalism | © Patrick Gathara
Rather than relying on local reporters, the anachronistic institution of foreign correspondents is maintained with mostly white, European or American individuals tasked with articulating the complex realities of entire continents within a few column inches to audiences back home. This has resulted in stereotypical reports, images and so-called parachute journalism, where reporters move from one crisis to another, unable to provide anything more than a superficial telling of the news.

Who Gets the Highest Office?

Latitude – Cartoon with text “Orange is the new Black”
“Orange is the new Black” | © Patrick Gathara

Paragons of Democracy

Latitude – Cartoon with text: “The Shining City on a Hill”
“The Shining City on a Hill” | © Patrick Gathara
Comparing the terms used to describe the recent US American elections can be illuminating. “America is a Third World country now” blared Fortune magazine following the chaotic first presidential debate. A letter to the editor published by The Alpena News declared: “US becoming third-world country on voting”. Yet, many countries across the so-called third world have smoother elections than those in the USA which are routinely rigged, for example by voter suppression. Moreover – because of the voting system’s setup where the votes of the Electoral College ultimately determine who becomes president – the highest office regularly does not go to the person who won the most votes. Rather than naming and shaming this reality, the “third world” is routinely used as a cover that allows the USA and European states to present themselves as paragons of democracy.

The “Saviours”

Latitude – Cartoon with text “World Humanitarian Summit”
“World Humanitarian Summit” | © Patrick Gathara

The Strong Global North?

Latitude – Cartoon on the topic: The Strong Global North?
The Strong Global North? | © Patrick Gathara
The African continent and other countries of the Global South are often portrayed as arenas of suffering and deprivation populated by the helpless and the weak, while the Global North is strong, innovative, benevolent and an altruistic “donor”. There is only little context offered of the systemic legacies of colonial rule and skewed international trade that trap many countries of the Global South in a cycle of extraction that benefit the Global North. Still less is told of initiatives by locals to respond to the problems, while preference is given to the voices of white “saviours”. Or that, rather than simply subsisting on US American and Western European charity, Africa is actually a net creditor to the world.