East vs. West – and how each is seen by the media
The battle between the “East” and the “West” has raged for many years. Whether it’s the military skirmishes of centuries gone by, the famous Cold War of the last century or the subtle cultural war that rages in the media to this day, there is a division that is somewhat hard to discover. It’s a complex picture: there’s no guarantees that everyone has the same view on where the East ends and the West begins, and it can sometimes be hard to spot media biases if you see them every day.
There’s a story worth discovering here though. How do we in the West perceive our neighbors in the East – and are our perceptions fair? To what extent is the world’s media dominated by Western interests – and how is the East seen on our TV stations, in newspapers and more? This article will attempt to answer these questions.
What is the East – and the West?
The complicating factor when discussing this issue is that the terms “East” and “West” have shifting, imprecise definitions. And to add complexity to an already difficult semantic field, international relations practitioners are now more likely to refer to the two “halves” of the world by other names – such as the “Global North” and the “Global South”, or the “developed” and “developing” worlds.
But it’s still possible to gain a broad understanding of what the two terms mean. In crude geographical terms, the “East” begins at the junction between Europe and Asia. The powerhouses of Europe and North America can be found to the west of countries like the Balkans. The Asian countries, the Middle East and the subcontinent can all be found the east of this so-called fault line. But more importantly, it has a political definition too. Countries which are members of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance), are often perceived as being part of the West. And some countries which are located in the east but speak so-called “western” languages and have strong ties with the West, such as Australia and New Zealand, are often placed in the West category as well.
Bias towards the West?
There’s no doubt about it: the world’s perception is skewed towards the West. No matter which “side” you live on, it’s likely that the organized, disseminated information you come across will have some sort of western bias. Research into maps carried out by researchers in Boston, for example, show that western regions – such as Europe – are often exaggerated in size, while non-western continents and areas which are much larger are presented as much smaller than they actually are.
The media cycle, of course, perpetuates this sort of misconception. One study has found that just 14% of news in the US covers foreign policy – and while some western nations have higher figures, on the whole it’s still a third or less. And it’s also worth pointing out that some of the world’s most high value and lucrative media networks are located in the West. As a result, it’s no surprise that much of the content generated about world affairs either excludes the East altogether – or, as the next section of this article will explore, presents a skewed view of it.
The East: a mixture of perceptions
The East has over the centuries played different roles – and the default assumption that the West has always been the center of world power is flawed. Many of the ancient Chinese dynasties, for example, were some of the most powerful to have ever existed on Earth, and several important discoveries in scientific and technical fields have been attributed to that region. But in the modern age, the East suffers from a mixture of less than flattering media perceptions. Some eastern countries, for example, are seen in media travel and tourism coverage as nothing more than exotic destinations: the popular Indian state of Goa, with several million people, is often simply seen by Western media as nothing more than a gorgeous beach destination.
Other eastern countries are portrayed in western media as sinister – such as Russia, which is blamed for everything from media manipulation to assassinations. As Angela Stent points out, it’s not always been simple to categorize where Russia fits in – although in recent years it appears there’s been a re-intensification of feelings that Russia is the “other”. Some Democrats in the US, for example, have blamed Russian interference for Hillary Clinton’s election defeat to Donald Trump to the extent that it’s now taken for granted in some circles – although it has not yet been conclusively proven. While there may well be evidence which suggests that these perceptions are true to some extent, it’s often an oversimplification. And it quickly becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, too, with media leaders finding reasons to discover content which fits the pre-formed narrative.
The West, then, is certainly the dominant actor in global media circles. Not only do western economic interests dominate the media industry, it is also the case that the content covered is pro-western in many ways as well. And while that doesn’t necessarily make it untrue, it does mean that it’s well worth thinking twice about what you read when reading about international affairs.