18 November, 2015

If it bleeds it leads? Distant Media Coverage of the Peace Process in Angola

by Virgil Hawkins

'If it bleeds, it leads'. This is an oft-used axiom used to describe what is broadly seen as a tendency by the news media to attempt to attract and and maintain an audience by focusing disproportionately on sensational news of violence, at the expense of less dramatic but equally important news. The consumers of the news, and, more importantly, the respresentatives of the news media themselves, instinctively refer to this as a given. But is it really so simple? In the context of armed conflict, can we simply assume that media interest in a particular conflict quickly fades away as the ink dries on a freshly signed peace deal?

While the notion seems to be a given, very few researchers have actually produced any evidence to back this up. Some studies of media coverage of domestic crime (like one by Kenneth Dowler in 2004) have come to the conclusion that “it really depends on who is bleeding”. Surely, this can also apply to the levels of media coverage of armed conflict, where there is a gaping chasm between the haves and have-nots. Interestingly, in a previous study by the author looking at the levels of coverage by the New York Times of three conflicts (Liberia, Israel-Lebanon and Sri Lanka) before and after and conclusive peace deals or ceasefires, it was found that in each case, coverage in the post-violence phase dropped to roughly one-third of that during the violence phase. This reflects a large drop no doubt, but perhaps not to the degree that one may have expected.

The conflict in Angola also makes for an interesting case, and, as the conflict ended sharply with the 2002 military defeat of the rebel group (UNITA) and the killing of its leader, Jonas Savimbi, the difference between violence and post-violence phases is clear-cut. Looking at the coverage by the New York Times of the conflict in the period beginning one year before the peace deal, and ending one year after, some interesting trends appear.

Firstly, the levels of coverage of Angola, in war or in peace, are, to put it mildly, small. Two weeks worth of post-violence coverage of the Israel-Lebanon conflict by the same newspaper is easily enough to surpass the two-years worth of coverage of Angola. But of the little of the coverage that is there, a large portion is indeed in the post-violence phase. If we split the coverage into violence and post-violence phases on the day of the peace deal, there are 12,690 words of coverage of the violence phase and 8,424 words of coverage of the post-violence phase – not such a huge drop. The violence phase includes, the final defeat of the rebels, as well as an attack by rebels on a train resulting in over 250 deaths in 2001. It remains the world's deadliest rail-related terrorist attack, yet attracted scant coverage. The post-violence phase coverage included a visit to the country by then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and the issue of corruption.

But the distinction between the two phases is not so clear, considering that much coverage after the killing of Savimbi (40 days before the peace deal) is about the peace deal and its immediate implications, not about the violence itself. So let's make a third phase – a transition phase – covering these 40 days. The results can be found in the graph below.

Coverage of Angola in the New York Times (April 2001- April 2003)

Depending on one's interpretation, it could be concluded that coverage of the post-violence phase actually exceeded that of the violence phase. That is, not only was post-conflict Angola not forgotten by the media, but peace attracted more attention than did the violence. 'Bleeding' did not result in 'leading'. Breaking up articles into categories based on the primary focus of each article (seen in the graph below) leads us to a similar conclusion. Actual violence only accounted for 12 percent of the total coverage throughout the two-year period.

Prime topics of coverage on Angola (New York Times, April 2001- April 2003)

But why was this the case? Well, to be fair, Angola did not 'lead' in either war or peace. It only made the front page of the New York Times twice in the period studied. But looking at patterns in the overall levels of coverage, and having spoken to some of the journalists that were in Angola at the time, some answers do emerge. Firstly, access played a major role. The fighting itself, and government regulation, made access to the conflict zones extremely limited, not only for the media but also for humanitarian organizations. Peace opened up much of the country for coverage. Secondly, there was competition for coverage with other events in the region – perhaps most notably presidential elections in Zimbabwe in early 2002. Thirdly, the media was likely catering to economic interests in the US, as business opportunities began to present themselves in post-conflict Angola. Finally, given that conflict had gone on for some many years in Angola, and that coverage seemed to have little to offer beyond stories of violence and suffering, the achievement of peace became the sensational novelty story for the media.

(This blog entry summarizes the results of an academic article published in Southern African Peace and Security Studies. The full study can be viewed here.)