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Tuesday, Nov 24, 2020

Western media reports on the Hong Kong protests tell just one of many stories

Newsworthiness is one reason for the huge disparities in US media coverage – as documented by a media watchdog – of Hong Kong’s strife and unrest elsewhere. Another reason could be that these media organisations have a different role to play
The six months of protests and unrest in Hong Kong have attracted extensive media attention around the world. Most major Western press and TV news outlets have reporters here covering the story. Time magazine even shortlisted the city’s protesters for its “Person of the Year” award.

Yet, at the same time, far worse unrest has been taking place in other countries. In Chile – considered South America’s most developed economy – major protests broke out in October following a rise in public transport fares. At least 26 people have been killed, several thousand injured and over 25,000 arrested.

In nearby Ecuador, protests against government austerity measures broke out in October. Much of the country was paralysed for a while and eight deaths were recorded.

Haiti, in the Caribbean, has suffered widespread unrest on and off for over a year following rises in fuel taxes. Thousands of schools, offices and government departments have been closed for much of the time. At least 42 people have died in the latest round of protests since September 15. Things were especially bad a couple of months ago when even police began demonstrating against low pay.

It is probably understandable that this violence and chaos overseas was not reported much here in Hong Kong. We had major demonstrations during that time – notably on National Day, then following the ban on face masks at gatherings, and in several districts around the city. What is more puzzling is that the rest of the world was also focusing mainly on Hong Kong’s protests.

Audiences in Western countries in October would have seen coverage of the police shooting and injuring a protester in Tsuen Wan, a police officer injured after having his neck cut and other incidents in shopping malls and on the streets.

They would have seen far less, if anything, about the much bigger and deadlier unrest taking place in South America and the Caribbean. The big news organisations in the US and Europe paid relatively little attention to the tragic events in these other places.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a US-based media watchdog which researches news coverage, has produced data that suggests Western news coverage is biased when it comes to the Hong Kong protests. It looked at two major news organisations, The New York Times and CNN, examining their coverage of protests in these four places during the relevant time periods.

The time periods vary, but even taking that into account, the disparity in coverage is massive. The two outlets had, between them, over 730 protest-related stories on Hong Kong versus 36 on Chile, 28 on Haiti and 12 on Ecuador. Furthermore, these figures included several stories that mentioned Chile and Ecuador as part of general reports on worldwide protests. And several of the stories on Haiti focused on US citizens caught up in the troubles.

One reason for the disparity is simply that Hong Kong is an iconic and high-profile city, and a major business centre with a large number of Western companies and residents. News editors believe their audiences will find it more interesting than events in less-prominent countries in South America and the Caribbean.

On top of that, the Hong Kong protests have become part of a much bigger story – the growing trade and political friction between China and the West. For example, the unrest in Hong Kong has encouraged US politicians to use the city as part of their campaigns to pressure China.

This makes the Hong Kong protests more newsworthy. But it also points to the possibility that the international news providers are playing a different sort of role in reporting the Hong Kong story.

The study by FAIR shows that the language used by the Western media also differs depending on the story. Among the examples are reports referring to “riots” in Chile and “violent protests” in Ecuador, while the participants in Hong Kong were called “pro-democracy activists”. The study also gives instances of reports downplaying violence used by protesters in Hong Kong.

I realise that people on all sides – including the opposition in Hong Kong – complain about media bias. Some government supporters in Hong Kong feel that the Western media are consciously pushing their own governments’ political stance.

It could be that the overseas press are simply closer to this side of the story. Their reporters are in a modern city with young English-speaking activists to interview and a dramatic skyline as a backdrop. It must be much easier to cover than Haiti.
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