Having been brought up by very humble ‘salt of the Earth’ parents who taught my sisters and I to be both generous of spirit and empathetic with all others, I’ve never really understood the way media coverage of an international disaster—plane crash, terror attack, earthquake–tends to focus on the nationalities of the dead and injured. Of course, I understand that local and regional media outlets depend on viewership and ratings for advertising revenue which therefore dictates that their reporting remains relevant to the local viewing population. But what about international news organizations and their wider responsibilities?
During my years of working and living in the Middle East, I often got my TV news from BBC World, Al Jazeera or Euro News because I wanted news coverage that included more stories from Africa, Asia and Europe than CNN International either deemed necessary or had the courage to air. These major world news organizations, however, do share one thing in common–when reporting on major disasters with casualties, they tend to place more focus on the number of Western lives lost, even when the number of Western casualties is significantly lower than the number of those killed or injured who just happen to be citizens of poorer developing countries. This bias in reporting has been most evident in media coverage of bombings and shootings labelled as ‘terrorist attacks’. I could mention a litany of both major and minor events that took place in the USA, France, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Australia, Israel and others where the international news coverage exhibited this Western-Centric bias.
What accounts for this double standard?
While reading about other cultures is valuable, it has limits as an educational tool and doesn’t fully prepare you for the experience of actually ‘being’ in a different culture. You can do research online or by reading travel guidebooks, but you will still remain in your comfort zone without the emotional changes and challenges that take place once you find yourself alone and surrounded by a different culture.
I remember walking the streets of a lesser known inland Chinese city and suddenly being startled by cries of “laowai, laowai” coming from across the street. I understood the meaning of laowai–foreigner–in Mandarin Chinese, but I was still surprised that it was considered acceptable to yell that at a foreigner in public. Of course, many of the other locals on the street at the time (which was everyone) stared at me, which of course made me feel more than a bit conspicuous as I picked up my pace to pass everyone with a smile and wave. You see, all the research I had done before going to work and live in China hadn’t fully prepared me for dealing with such an awkward public situation, but it did make me aware that keeping a sense of humor would be a valuable asset in future encounters which might otherwise have turned out to be uncomfortable for both me and the locals I encountered on a daily basis.
Gaining some degree of cultural awareness doesn’t depend on having advanced degrees or being highly intellectual, but in my view it’s accessible to anyone with a keen sense of ‘personal’ awareness and who’s willing and able to spend time living within a foreign culture. Skillful observation of the target (foreign) culture as well as critical examination of your own cultural upbringing are also prerequisites. At its heart, cultural awareness rests on an individual’s ability to ask the right questions about both their own culture and the new one.
Even for those of us who grew up in less traditional cultures where it isn’t unusual for individuals or entire families to scatter and move the breadth of a continent, our cultural roots run far deeper than we might imagine. If the American presidential election in November 2016 clearly indicated anything, it’s that citizens from different states in the USA continue to harbor quite different world views despite two centuries of mass immigration from abroad and 150 years of region to region migration within the country.
Statistics also indicate there are further differences between urban and rural world views and priorities within each given state when it comes to voting patterns and proposed government legislation. If citizens from the same country can’t seem to agree on most important issues, what hope is there for agreement among the diverse cultures on our planet?
As an American who’s been living and working overseas for more than 15 years, I often find myself pondering the question: how do the local folks I encounter on a daily basis see me? Am I viewed as a benevolent foreigner, a cultural disruptor or merely a nuisance that can either be ignored or tolerated? Since nationality is often one of the first things that comes up when meeting a local or another expat in a foreign land, it’s pretty awkward trying to completely avoid the subject, which is something I often attempt to do.
That isn’t to say that I’m ashamed of being born an American, or a ‘Canadian’ as I often proclaim when traveling in certain regions of the world. Compared to my Indian and Arab friends, I realize I’m incredibly fortunate to have the freedom of international movement that’s allowed by having a ‘preferred passport’. With only a few notable exceptions, it allows me (visa-free) freedom of movement across international borders while individuals from many developing countries are required to pay a fee and wait weeks (or months) to obtain a proper visa prior to traveling. Dealing with that kind of bureaucracy for months in advance could be enough to discourage even the most enthusiastic traveler. So yes, I do feel lucky.