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Yemen and the problems of ADD journalism

Since the underwear bomber attempted to bring down Northwest 253 on Christmas Day, it’s been all terror all the time across news media. Project for Excellence in Journalism reports a rare occurance – stories surrounding NW253 have dominated coverage in all the media they track – blogs, twitter, newspapers, television and radio. There are numerous threads to the story – a predictable debate over whether the attack is Obama’s fault, discussions of the failures of US intelligence, speculations about changes in airport security (theatre).

And then there’s Yemen. As Michael Cohen puts it on Democracy Arsenal, “Yemen is the New Black!” There’s no better way to get coverage on cable news this week than to declare that the US should invade/support/stabilize/redecorate/pave Yemen immediately to address the threat of Al Qaeda. And news organizations are falling over themselves to provide background information on the country, its politics and the possibility that Yemen may be emerging as a “safe haven” for terrorist training.

Brian Katulis, writing for the Center for American Progress, does an excellent job of shattering the “safe haven myth”, pointing out that the critical preparations for 9/11 took place in Germany and in flight schools in the US, not in Afghanistan. The first line of his piece, especially, is killer: “America’s attention deficit disorder-afflicted media spent the last week rediscovering Yemen as a country of serious concern for global security.”

Just how quickly has attention shifted on Yemen? The New York Times has run 79 pieces of content on their website that mention Yemen in the past 7 days. In the previous year, only 189 stories mentioned Yemen. In most years, 79 stories is roughly a half-year’s quota for Yemen attention. (I don’t mean to pick on the Times. The Washington Post ran 317 piece on Yemen since 2008, and 92 in the past three days. It’s just that the Times has the best archives of any US paper and lets me search year by year…)

NYTimes stories on Yemen
New York Times stories on Yemen. The first 7 days of this year are in blue.

So what? Yemen’s important. If Al Qaeda is training bombers in Yemen, we need to hear this story!

Fair enough. But Yemen’s been important for a long, long time. In October 2000, the USS Cole was attacked by Al Qaeda suicide bombers, killing 19 (17 sailors and the two bombers). Yemen was likely the venue for the attack because it was a country where Al Qaeda operatives found it easy to operate. A second attack destroyed a French oil tanker in 2002, spilling 90,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Aden.

As Katulis points out, the US has had concerns about terror in Yemen since 1992, and removed personnel from Aden out of concern for their safety. Things haven’t gotten stabler in Yemen since the Cole bombing – a civil war, which some see as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has destabilized the northwest of the country and the Yemeni government doesn’t appear especially inclined to extinguish an Al Qaeda presence in the nation. In 2008, car bombs attacked the US embassy in Sana’a, killing sixteen – al Qaeda is widely credited with the attack.

So the question isn’t why Yemen’s receiving so much attention now, but why it’s not a regular focus in our discussions of insecurity, terrorism and failed states. In other words, why don’t we watch Yemen, Somalia and other failing and failed states as closely as we watch Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq?

The simple answer is that journalists – and their readers – are herd animals. We want to know the important, breaking story and so journalists work hard to deliver that story to us, at the expense of other, potentially important stories. When a major story is breaking, other stories get less attention. My colleague Hal Roberts and I tracked media attention to the Green Revolution in Iran in the weeks that followed the disputed elections. Iranian electoral protests were the biggest story in many news outlets… up until the day Michael Jackson died, displacing Iran as the most “important” story.

In a print age, media pack behavior made slightly more sense. Most readers read only a daily newspaper or watched a specific newscast. If that news outlet didn’t report on Michael Jackson’s death, their viewers wouldn’t have this critical bit of cultural information – it made sense for all the outlets to flock to the key stories. But it’s a maladaptive behavior in an internet age. If the Times is all over Yemen like white on rice, I don’t need the Post to be as well – in fact, I’d probably benefit if they were able to turn their attention to another part of the world, one not at the top of the news agenda today, but likely to be important in the future. Or if they used the shoebomber story to explore other related issues – Muslim/Christian tensions in Nigeria, the fact that the alleged bomber was the child of great privlege in Nigeria (characteristic of many terrorists, countering the narrative that terrorist cells prey on the weak, disadvantaged and ignorant), or even on the weird Ghana connection to the story.

Attention deficit disorder-afflicted journalism is virtually guaranteed to be bad journalism. The reporters jetting off to Sana’a don’t know the country as well as people who cover the country through news droughts as well as floods. Foreign Policy Passport has been doing an excellent job of lining up knowledgeable Yemen commentators, offering a useful Yemen for Dummies, links to Ginny Hill’s exemplary Yemen reporting, and Marc Lynch’s caution against military intervention in Yemen (or virtually anywhere else).

Houses in Sana’a’s medina – photo by Sandy Choi on ForeignPolicy.com

Most useful for me was a photo essay on Foreign Policy by Sandy Choi, a photographer who captured several corners of Yemen, urban and rural. Her photos turn an abstract spot on the map into a place that’s real, magical and beautiful.

In years past, newspapers and television networks had foreign correspondents living throughout the world, ready to report on breaking news if it occured, and filing stories on local politics, trends and ideas the rest of the time. The deep knowledge a reporter would develop of a country would make her insights indispensible when breaking news struck and the world suddenly shifted attention to the country in question. That age is over – it’s unlikely that newspapers will support dozens of correspondents, and I wonder whether projects like GlobalPost, a network of freelance foreign correspondents who syndicate to major news outlets, are the way forward. I’d like to see international media pay more attention to people who are from these countries and who write online, like Omar Barsawad’s Moments in Words blog from Hadhramout, Yemen.

The issue isn’t the content, ultimately – it’s our attention. There’s been rich, nuanced, sophisticated writing about Yemen for the past several years. I didn’t read any of it, in part because I didn’t know I needed to, and no one (successfully) made the case that it was worth my attention. If we want to get beyond the limitations of an ADD media, we’ve got to work to flock less and wander more in our own media consumption.

8 thoughts on “Yemen and the problems of ADD journalism”

  1. Pingback: Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 01/08/2010

  2. Ethan: Your analysis is dead on. The value of in-depth, niche journalism too often goes unrecognized by the consumer market until it can be tacked onto a “hot” story. Bottom-up data and reporting are essential to informing reporters and decision-makers, and it must be sustained beyond passing spikes in general interest.

    One helpful resource is Global Integrity’s bottom-up data and original reporting on governance and corruption trends. We work with in-country experts who know the local context and can explain what corruption feels like day-to-day for the average citizen.

    And just to tag onto the recent Yemen spike, check out the national level assessment we completed there in 2008: http://report.globalintegrity.org/Yemen/2008

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  4. To expect a long attention span from news journalism would be to deny the point of it, wouldn’t it? That’s what sociology is for.

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