Do you ever question what popular news media have to say about what’s going on in other parts of the world?
Our travels have taken us through places perceived – often inappropriately — as dangerous: Central Asia, the Caucasus, Burma (Myanmar), Jordan, Bangladesh. Add to that our recent travels to Iran, and to Egypt and Greece amidst protests. And now we’re in Mexico for a few months, another place high on the perceived danger meter.
Do we proceed blindly? No.
Are we adrenaline junkies, danger seekers? Not really.
We do our research, connect with locals and expats on the ground, and read reports from recent travelers. Then we go and enjoy ourselves.
We also know to take what we see on the news with a generous pinch of salt.
Why? Because our experiences on the ground have made us aware of a few reporting techniques that spice up the story of the moment while dropping a bit of the larger reality along the way.
Here are just a few.
Media Fear Techniques
Broad Brush (Egypt)
When there are protests or a natural disaster strikes, events are often portrayed in a way that implies that an entire region has been consumed, even if the impact is limited.
To recognize this is not to take away from the severity of the issue at hand. However, other facts – like the relative peace and safety of unaffected areas – gets lost along the way. This not only harms the image of the country and its people, but it can affect the economy, particularly when that economy depends on tourism and investment.
To look at it another way: If an earthquake or demonstration happened in San Francisco, does it make sense not to travel to New York?
Next time you consume news, be sure to have a map handy to understand the true scope and effect of the event.
Our experience: When we visited Cairo, Egypt in December 2011 during the country’s second wave of demonstrations of the year, news reports seemed to imply that the entire city was engulfed in chaos.
Yes, there was violence on Tahrir Square. But the affected area was tiny in comparison to a sprawling city of over 15 million people, a country of over 80 million. As we made our way in Cairo (including around Tahrir Square) and around northern Egypt, we witnessed much of life carrying on as normal – people going to work, kids going to school, roads full of traffic.
This is the bit that’s conveniently missed in a typical news cycle.
Not All Protests Are Created Equal (Greece)
Not all protests are violent. Violence just sells better.
Our experience: Our visit to the Greek island of Crete in the fall of 2011 happened amidst a wave of demonstrations and protests against austerity measures in Greece. The images coming out of Athens at the time were flame-ridden, smoke-filled and ominous. We witnessed another set of protests in Heraklion, Crete’s largest city.
Protests were lively and featured thousands of protesters who, as a rule, were hardly violent or dangerous. There may have been a few incidents, but when the protests were over, most participants retired to local cafes to hang out with friends and enjoy a frappé.
Focus on the Fringe (Iran)
“Events you see here may be staged or represent a small portion of the population.” A disclaimer we’ll never see.
To understand the real story of a country, you need to understand its ordinary people. But let’s face it — ordinary people and their viewpoints don’t sell, they aren’t flush with juicy sound bites, and they don’t make for good theater. But if you speak to them, you’re likely to realize that the issues of the day are more complex than the prevailing narrative.
And when you do that, your fear – of other people and other countries – can come into perspective.
Our experience: Our visit to Iran happened to coincide with the anniversary of the hostage taking at the American embassy in 1979. On the day of the anniversary, we wandered through the streets and markets of the town of Shiraz. We were besieged — by friendly locals offering invitations to go to the movies and for ice cream, tea and dinner.
When we turned on the TV at our hotel that night both local and international coverage focused on the anti-American demonstrations. While we wouldn’t expect media coverage of our ice cream dates in the market, a little coverage of life on the streets outside of those protests might have told a broader, more accurate story – one that made viewers think, rather than one that cemented their beliefs and fears.
When we asked a few Iranians about the demonstrations, they explained that they’re more a function of government orchestration, stacked with government employees who are required to participate for fear of losing their jobs. Sure, some people do participate voluntarily, but the government stages the rest to demonstrate “support.”
The Zoom Lens (Jordan)
“With every zoom, give me the wide angle.”
You’ve seen the images of protestors on the streets, zoomed in to illustrate anger and volume. But sometimes if the lens were to taken to a wide-angle view, you might see that only a handful of people are there. At least, you would see the context. Instead, the zoom lens makes great theater – the crowd is compressed, the protest is heating up.
Our experience: When we visited Jordan last February, the international press had covered Friday demonstrations as if they constituted the next Arab Spring uprising. For friends of ours living near the square, the protests were as they always were — not much more, not much less.
Good News Is No News (Bangladesh)
Woe the developing world. It seems as though we only hear about it when natural disaster strikes, when political upheaval is at hand.
The prevailing image of these places is that the countries are permanently suspended in calamity, in struggle. Sure those stories are relevant, but what happens in these countries before and after? What is the wider view?
Our experience: We wanted to visit Bangladesh because we suspected there was more to the country and its story than the famine, floods, and natural disasters we usually heard about. During our visit, we found a country with a youthful spirit and 150 million very curious people.
Yes, Bangladesh is a very densely populated country facing many challenges, particularly of the environmental and political varieties. But it still manages to implement initiatives like a plastic bag ban (imagine accomplishing that in your hometown, much less a country the size of Bangladesh), electric rickshaws, and all buses and trucks using CNG (compressed natural gas). These stories rarely ever make it out and they certainly aren’t theatrical enough to control the prevailing narrative. It’s a shame since stories like this could serve as inspiration and instruction for those willing to listen.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “OK, Dan and Audrey. So what?”
The upshot is that the world for the most part is not a scary place – at least not for the reasons you see on TV.
Next time you consume a news story, sit back for a moment and ask yourself: Is this the whole story? What‘s the bigger context? What are the truths, half-truths and full-on fibs?
And most importantly, “What might I be missing?”
Your answer just might influence what you think about the rest of the world. And perhaps it will make you want to travel to find out for yourself.