Watching International News Worsens Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings

I remember as a little kid, when my family and I were about to travel to New York City for the first time. I was absolutely scared to within an inch of my life, convinced that within weeks, I would be robbed, kidnapped and murdered. You see, up until that point, the only impression I had ever had of NYC, was whatever I had seen in action movies. Compared to my normal and safe life in a quiet town, New York City seemed like a crime-ridden metropolis bursting at the seams with mafia, gangs and international villains.

“How could anyone normal even live in such a place?” I constantly asked myself.

Looking back, I always get a good laugh at my once deep and irrational phobia. How silly my fears had been! Kids say the darndest things indeed… But is that really all there is to it? It’s easy to dismiss my fears as the paranoid delusions of a 7-year old, but to do so misses the larger point about the mistaken impressions that we all form everyday.

I’ve been thinking about this more and more lately, ever since the start of the Sochi olympics and it’s ensuing media coverage. As someone who lives in America, and mostly follows international news from American sources and points-of-view, I can’t help but notice something troubling with the coverage that I’ve been seeing.

Ever since the Sochi olympics started, and the world suddenly started discussing life in Russia, the coverage has been overwhelmingly negative and one-sided. The vast majority of these reports are probably true… but they still seem incredibly skewed. By reporting only on the most sensational stories of dysfunction from Sochi, they present a picture that completely misrepresents the reality of the country.

As I think more about it, this is really a problem with the nature of today’s journalism and reporting. With any complex topic, such as life in a certain country or culture, there are innumerable perspectives… many positive, and many negative. Each and everyone one of these perspectives can only seen and appreciated through certain stories and themes. And yet, whenever the media reports foreign news, it’s usually regarding negative news. Feel-good stories are usually a fraction of the shocking and attention grabbing coverage that dominates international news.

High rates of suicide in Korea. High rates of divorce in America. Ban of chewing gum in Singapore. Child molestations by Catholic priests. Racism in the American south. Dysfunction in the Greek economy. Pollution and corruption in China. By viewing each country or community through these narrow set of perspectives, the image that the layperson forms is an incredibly skewed version of reality.

The people who actually live in such societies are able to read these stories, shake their heads in disgust, and still recognize that it represents only the extreme band of their reality. They still go through their daily lives, interacting with the 95% of people in any society who are simply normal. They have positive experiences with their friends and loved ones, which they cherish and wouldn’t give up for the world. They read and hear about the feel-good stories from their society, which fill them with a sense of optimism and hope. They enjoy the glowing positives of their society, which they take as a given, but the rest of the world either doesn’t realize, appreciate or value.

But for someone who’s sitting on a couch ten thousand miles away, they don’t get any of these things. They are deprived of the day-to-day life experiences. They are deprived of the relationships that all humans form everywhere. They are deprived of the feel good stories that we all hear from friends and local news. They don’t see, appreciate or value all the great things which others would not trade the world for. All they hear about are the shocking, sensationalistic, and usually negative chatter about each society. It’s no surprise that they end up with a completely warped perception of reality.

Even worse, many come to actually enjoy this warped perception. They find a certain joy in convincing themselves that theirs is the only “normal” way of life, and they are incredibly lucky to have been blessed with it. That others elsewhere are suffering through a life of savagery, misery or hedonistic decadence. They enjoy the zoo-like voyeurism of marveling at the most sensational aspects of other societies, while they themselves are secure in their own “normal” world.

Such fantasies and ego-porn are usually abetted by the media themselves not putting into perspective how these sensational stories compare to normal day-to-day life; how the other positive aspects of the society stand together with these shocking elements; and how these sensationalistic stories have their analogues in the viewer’s own home.

This TED speaker said it most powerfully, when she describes the danger of seeing entire sections of the world, through the lens of a single repeated story.

We’ve mostly discussed thus far the failings of the media in presenting a complete picture, and the failure of the viewer in seeking out the most scandalous news and forming premature opinions based on such incomplete perspectives. But the members of that society have a part to play in this as well.

All too often, we see people who are too quick to bash their own society and its ills, in front of an ignorant external crowd. Their wish to see their society improve, and their frustrations with its problems, are very understandable. But they also need to realize that anytime they deal with someone thousands of miles away, they are ambassadors talking to someone whose knowledge is limited to the most sensationalistic stories reported on the news.

As such, they really need to provide a sense of perspective, of what normal life in their homes is really like. A perspective that acknowledges the often-reported shocking aspects, but also includes the uniquely positive aspects of their home and the vastly-common-normal that binds us all. It might be okay to criticize one’s mother when discussing within one’s family, but it is incredibly tacky to do so with strangers.

The world is an immensely huge, nuanced and rich place. Every portion of it has to be seen from numerous different angles and perspectives before it can truly be understood and judged. The pursuit of knowledge, and the curiosity about other parts of the world, is truly a great thing worth following. Let’s do so in a nuanced way, and keep in mind the severe limitations of trying to see from thousands of miles away.

Related links:
Availability Heuristic – How sensationalism becomes our new Normal
NYTimes: Coverage of the Brazil Olympics
How we’d cover Ferguson if it happened in another country
NYTimes: Stories about disability don’t have to be sad

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