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Brock’s insights on the Tunisia media attention disparity

George Brock (Professor and Head of Journalism at City University London, long time writer and editor for the Times of London) has a thoughtful and helpful response to my previous post on the protests in Tunisia and my perception that they’re getting far less media attention than the “green revolution” protests in Iran. Before addressing his helpful intervention, a quick update:

Protests are continuing throughout Tunisia. President Ben Ali is looking increasingly desperate. In a speech yesterday, he promised to cut prices on some major foodstuffs, remove restrictions on the press and the Internet and to step down in 2014, rather than standing for re-election. Today, he’s dismissed his entire government and called for elections in six months. It’s unclear that these concessions will be accepted by protesters, who appear to have unified around calls for his removal.

While media attention is rising on the story – especially from responsible outlets like The Guardian, Al Jazeera, PRI’s The World, Foreign Policy and others who’ve been covering it throughout – it still hasn’t captured public attention (at least in the US) the way the Iran protests did last year. To explain attention disparities regarding Tunisia, Brock offers several useful explanations for the disparity in attention:

– The disparity is greater in the US than elsewhere – Tunisia is big news in the French and Arabic media
– Tunisia’s always going to be a smaller story in the English-speaking world – it’s historically and culturally aligned with France
– The story hit the news dead zone between Christmas and New Years
– There’s less geopolitical significance for Tunisia than for Iran, and long-term American involvement in Iran (and guilt over proping up the Shah) contributes to interest.

I’ll push back against one of Brock’s explanations, that being a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is a dangerous job. While that’s true, Iran made it virtually impossible for foreign correspondents to cover the protests – in an essay last year, I argued that the difficulty in covering the protests directly led to the heavily reliance on social media.

But I’ll agree with Brock’s other points, for the most part. There’s more attention in French-language media than in English – this graph compares searches and news coverage for “Tunisia” and “Tunisie” to offer a rough English/French comparison. The bottom graph, which measures news attention, shows a lockstep rise between French and English terms, suggesting that both English and French outlets are taking interest in the protests. Search volume shows a sharp difference – there’s a pretty clear rise for “Tunisie” and a much more gradual rise for “Tunisia” – to me this suggests either lots more Francophones interested in the story, or perhaps more Tunisians searching in French (which we’d expect) for news and coverage. It does help illustrate the point I offered in my previous piece – for whatever reasons, the Tunisia story hasn’t captured the imagination of Anglophones in the way the Iran story did.

This graph is helpful for understanding the intensity of interest in Iran during the election, recount and protests – while Iran routinely gets roughly 4x the attention of Tunisia, during the Green movement protests, attention spiked to roughly four times the normal intensity. The green movement was one of the rare international news stories to register as a top story on Project for Excellence in Journalism’s news coverage index – I’ll be interested to see whether Tunisia registers this week. And while important cheerleaders like Andrew Sullivan have started waving their influential pompoms for Tunisia, it hasn’t captured the imagination of the Twittersphere in nearly the same way (likely due to some of the reasons Brock outlines.)

Where Brock and I agree completely is that social media is having some sort of role, probably an important role, in the protests. Brock’s language is a bit stronger than what I would use:

This has been a social media revolt, both in the mobilisation of middle class intellectuals and in the gathering and distribution of detailed information about what was happening on the ground. Much inflated hyperbole is talked about the effect of social media on politics and society in Europe and the US. But here in the Middle East, it is impossible exaggerate the importance – actual and potential – of informal media. (An earlier post of mine on this here).

Anyone doubting its importance to the events in Tunisia should look at the actions of the authorities. At first, traditional reflexes operated. Newspapers were disrupted and journalists detained. Then the authorities realised that the printed press was a nuisance but not the real problem: they went after the bloggers and the web. This sequence of events is well summarised here by IFEX.

I’m not ready to declare a revolution until Ben Ali steps down and Tunisia holds elections. And even if that happens, I’d argue – as I have previously – that social media’s a part of the equation, not the whole. But it does seem like those who are enthusiastic about the role of social media in mobilizing and promoting protest, but aren’t watching Tunisia closely, are missing something big here. The protests in Tunisia have already yielded concessions that would have been hard for most Tunisians to believe a few weeks back, and have served as a profound warning to other autocratic leaders in the region.