Aung San Suu Kyi
Currently there are as much as 40 wars going on in the world (IRIN News, 2016). Among them are armed conflicts that have been going on for as much as 70 years. Yet our media outlets have never found it important to cover any of them (Hawkins, 2008; McConnel, 2017). Why does the war in Syria get more international media attention than the war in Yemen for example? Both are happening in the Middle East, both concern oil supplies and radical Islamic groups. So why is it that the international media cover Syria so intensively and barely take a look at Yemen for example?
A more recent event is the Rohingya crisis. Why did the media report the situation very briefly, and then quickly kept it from our news?
Throughout a series of factors that decide whether a certain war receives coverage, I will try to form an answer to that question. Afterwards, I will present my research on a case study concerning the coverage of the Rohingya crisis and show how it fits the statement: “the practice of underreporting in media applied to the coverage of the Rohingya crisis in comparison to the Syrian war”.
Major factors that decide whether a certain conflict receives coverage or not, are the political significance and the proximity of the conflict to the nation in question. The conflict has to be in a nation’s national political, geographical and cultural interest in order to be covered by its news outlets (Hawkins, 2008; Harvey 2012). For example: the reason why Syria is so prominently present in our news, is because of the fact that it answers to the factors stated above. It is in our national and political interests; the West is directly involved. The war causes threats to western national security because of possible terror attacks, economic issues because of an uncertain oil owner and military issues because of the presence of Western forces on Syrian soil. That’s a rough appliance (Taub, 2016).
In addition, the fact of being a ‘core’- nation or a peripheral nation plays role as well (Hawkins, 2008). A great economic power such as Russia is more likely to get coverage from international media when it has internal disputes for example than a small developing country (Harvey, 2012).
These points clearly sate that it’s not as much as an issue ‘whether’ a certain war is reported but ‘how’ it is reported as well. The ideological gap during the Cold War, capitalism vs. communism and therefore good vs. bad, invariably ensured that the media’s point of view and argumentation is in line with that of its national government, talking about foreign policy. That tendency has been kept till today (Bennet, 1990).
Unintentionally, this point relies closely to one of Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model (Barret, 2004). In his argumentation Chomsky says that media rely on elite sources and therefore government sources and experts, appointed by or somehow, functioning for the government, the so called primary sources. They will always analyse a conflict in a way the government’s point of view is justified (Herman & Chomsky, 2002).
Regarding foreign policy, it would simply not be good for business to go against your own government as a media outlet. (Barret, 2004). If media or journalists start questioning the foreign policy makers, they might face repression by the government and the public because of spreading anti-patriotic senses (Barret, 2004).
That view of ‘patriotism sells’ is related to Chomsky’s idea of media’s profit orientation (Herman & Chomsky, 2002). A news outlet will write what the public wants to buy. In this case, we talk about wars that interests a medium’s readership or viewership. Therefore, it is likelier that a war in which a medium’s nation or the international community is involved will get more, or even the only, coverage compared to a war happening somewhere far from our bed (Barret, 2004).
Even though Chomsky’s model doesn’t work in every case. The points mentioned in these previous paragraphs show us a case where it actually does (Barret, 2004).
Media have followed the tendency of Cold War reporting. Most of the covered conflicts are ideological wars. Like Vietnam for example, once the soldiers had left Vietnamese soil, the cameras did as well, ready for another war. And that’s what happened. Take a look at the Gulf War, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya and Israel-Palestine (Harvey, 2012). All these wars left little time for media to properly cover all the others in Central Africa such as the conflict in Angola, Liberia, Congo and so on (Bennet, 1990).
The Cold War has taught us that the major part of conflicts could be solved through diplomacy and principles as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which means that in a threat of nuclear war, all nations involved would choose diplomacy as a way of solving conflicts because going to war would mean a complete destruction of every nation involved (Franks, 2013). However, that changed with 9/11 as a war was suddenly fought on solemn Western soil. As an answer, Bush turned guns towards the Middle East and since then our cameras have never actually left (Taub, 2016).
There is also the media’s view on the practical side of reporting. If a country is difficult to access, if there are legal restrictions or problems with ensuring security for the reporter, they will simply decide to go and cover another conflict or issue somewhere else. Somewhere more accessible (Harvey, 2012).
But that may be a debatable issue nowadays since citizen journalism has developed in a rather fast pace during the digitalisation of media. People post tons of videos on social media when a certain crisis is developing. Take the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008 for example. More than 20,000 tweets about the occurrence have been send between the period of the 26th of November and the 30th. A lot of international media outlets have used those twitter messages as a source for their news reports and programmes (Onook, et al., 2013).
Therefore, the assumption that the digitalisation of media is changing the way we report conflicts can easily be made. But then, why didn’t the media report on the crisis in the Ivory Coast, from which a video with a group of demonstrating women being brutally murdered in the street was placed on the internet (Harvey, 2012)? Well, since media didn’t report on the issue before it was rather difficult to make the audience understand what was going on, the conflict concerning these images had been going on since 2002. You can’t possibly explain a nation’s internal political history in a one- to three-minute news report. A lot of vicious circles have been created by simply deciding not to report a certain conflict (Hawkins, 2008).
That argument easily leads to another; the complexity of a certain conflict will decide whether it gets coverage or not. Compare it to a football game (Harvey, 2012). In a football game, you have a clear set of rules, 11 players on each side of the field, trying to score goals against each other. Each team has identifying uniforms for the audience to understand who opposes who. But if you start adding three or four teams to a game and therefore adapting the structure of the playfield and the rules, people will drop out because they simply don’t understand what’s going on (Hawkins, 2008).
Another important factor is whether the audience can sympathise with the conflict’s actors, almost like a Hollywood film. If there is a proper line between good and evil, if it can be personified, people will be able to easily follow the story. Examples of such conflicts may be the Iraqi war with Saddam Hussein and the war on terror against Osama Bin Laden (Hawkins, 2008).
So, when a conflict is sensational and dramatic, like a Hollywood film, people will find it interesting. 9/11 is a great example of that fact. Planes crashing in to the tallest buildings of New York, make the violent occurrence identifiable to people. Missiles being fired from large navy vessels as well. In contrast with such large-scale violence stands the rather unsensational scene of people dying in streets, starvation, repression and genocides with garden tools and machetes in Rwanda for example (Hawkins, 2008).
Today we can see another example of how media deliberately leave a conflict aside in their daily news carrousels: Myanmar. A country with quite a history concerning persecutions and inter-ethnic violence has once again, like it did before in 2015, made some appearances in our media and also suddenly vanished (IRIN News, 2016).
Before analysing the way media report(ed) the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, you have to go back in time to understand how this nation has treated the oppressed Rohingya ethnic minority in the past in order to understand what happens today.
During Great Britain’s imperial era, Myanmar has been a part of the former so called ‘Commonwealth’. During the colonization of Myanmar, also called Burma back in the day, Britain made the area a province of India to create a unified Eastern colony (Reuters, 2012).
This made it possible for the population to easily migrate from Indian province to Indian province. These migrations were mostly made out of economic considerations. Many Bengalis (a Muslim population in India) settled in Burma during that time, working for the British empire. Most of them stayed forever (Green & McManus, 2015).
The Burmese province in which the Rohingya dwell is called Rhakine. But beside them, the area is home to another ethnic Buddhist group. This Buddhist population regarded the coming of the Bengalis as illegal immigration as the entire Burmese territory consists 98% of Buddhist societies (Green & McManus, 2015).
After the Second World War, The Commonwealth decided to let Burma become independent in 1948 (Ferrie, 2015). As much as 15 ethnic groups resided in Myanmar on that point, and they still do today. After the independence, a civilian government was installed including representatives from every ethnic group, all demanding acts for their own ethnic interests. Some ethnic groups even demanded independence from the Burmese Union because of disputes (Green & McManus, 2015).
Therefore, in 1962, General Ne Win, head of the army, conducted a coup and replaced the rather pro ethnic government, as he was scared that Burma would lose territories because of internal issues. Since Ne Win’s regime, the Rohingya population has been considered illegal claiming that they were only able to come there under British rule. Moreover, they can only participate in elections if they identify themselves as Bengali (Green & McManus, 2015; Reuters, 2012).
Since then tensions have only been growing. Even though Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was able to democratize the authoritarian regime, she hasn’t been able to solve the ethnic issues. Therefore, Rohingya Muslims started to riot and devastate as an act of protest, they were not heard. But by doing so they only brought more suffering upon themselves as their villages got attacked and their people systematically murdered (Green & McManus, 2015).
In 2013 a radical Buddhist group emerged which seeks retaliation on the Rohingya for invading traditional Buddhist Myanmar. In 2014 a Buddhist woman was raped by Muslims and in response, their communities were attacked (CBC News, 2015). In 2016 tensions reached a new high as Rohingya insurgents had attacked border police in Rhakine. In response, the Burmese military started a crackdown on the Muslim community (Reuters, 2016). Thousands of people have fled to the neighbouring country Bangladesh, another thousand were killed, raped or burned to death in their villages set on fire (Reuters, 2016).
Now, how did the media respond to the latest developments in the Rohingya crisis? Did their attention even decline as it started to appear in our news as of the beginning of August 2017?
With some nuance, the answer is yes, as the graph beneath brings prove of that.

First of all, the data for this graph was acquired by counting all the reports with major mentions on ‘Rohingya’ combined with appearances of the word ‘crisis’ in UK national newspapers: Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Daily Star, The Daily Telegraph, The Express, The Guardian, The Independent, The Mirror and The Sunday Mirror, The Observer, The People, The Sun, The Sunday Express, The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times and the Times found in Lexis® Library. I counted the number of news reports per month and put them into a graph.
Before the attacks on the Rohingya in August 2017 we see that there is not more than an average of 3 reports written on the subject each month. To the contrary, in August, as the attacks took place, we can see that there is a sudden rise of reports on the matter and a peak in September. Then again, a month later, the amount of news reports started to decline again and it’s still doing so today.
As the graph above shows, news reports on the matter have been rather scarce until the incidents of August 2017. Even though the area around Myanmar is of historical interest to the UK (IRIN News, 2016). The graph clearly shows a meagre interest in the issue as newspaper reports clearly decline after the biggest part of the storm was over. The reason for that can be shown through another graph, shown next.
Why did the coverage suddenly decline?
The major part of the news reports concerning the Rohingya crisis treats the country’s Nobel prize winner for Peace, Aung San Suu Kyi and her inability to recognize the issue, as the graph below proves (Reuters, 2016).

Again, this data was collected by counting all the UK newspaper reports found by Lexis® Library with major mentions on “Rohingya”, “Crisis” and “Aung San Suu Kyi” per month, starting from July 2017. A month before the start of the crisis.
Which factors are influencing the sudden drop in media attention? The first ones we can look at are the political and national interests of the crisis to our western media. And therefore, the proximity, military and economic significance (Hawkins, 2008).
The reason why most of the news reports treat Aung San Suu Kyi as a major subject in the crisis, is because of the fact that she has been recognized by the Western world with the Nobel prize for Peace (Ferrie, 2015). The fact becomes even clearer if you look at the event of Aung San Suu Kyi, meeting with president Barack Obama in 2012 (The Telegraph, 2012).
Media shift the attention from the crisis to a cultural and political relevant person, within the crisis. That’s something the graph confirms as 244 out of the 265 news reports were written on Aung San Suu Kyi in the peak month of September.
The fact that the issue concerns a Muslim society challenges our Western media as well, because of the recent terror attacks all around Europe. Islamic terrorism has been very present in our news. The risk of sympathizing with the Rohingya simply is too great as it would interfere with the government’s foreign policy (Stone, 2017). And, as we said earlier, opposing national foreign policy is bad for business (Barret, 2004).
Another possible reason why the media have shifted the subject towards Aung San Suu Kyi is the fact that she doesn’t recognize the oppression, it made a good story. A paradox was created: “A Nobel Prize winner for Peace who can’t acknowledge her country’s dire, human rights threatening situation. A factor with clear ties towards the ability to sympathise, as it makes a rather dramatic story (Hawkins, 2008) ”Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace” (Dias, 2017).
Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that there is still another conflict going on, in Syria, which is in sense of political, cultural, national, economic and military interests a better product to sell for our media. Because the west is directly involved in it (Barret, 2004).
Media attention for Syria has also remained constant during the period of ‘intense’ Rohingya reporting. It even rose after the major part of the Rohingya storm had faded as the graph below supports.

Again, this data was collected by counting all the UK newspaper reports on Lexis® Library about the Syrian conflict with major mentions on “Syria”, “war”, and “ISIS”
Another factor we saw earlier can be brought in contact with the coverage of the Rohingya crisis because of these statistics. Namely; black-on-black violence seems to be of little interest to the West. But throw in a white group and the story suddenly becomes more important as the war in Syria concerns fights with Western International coalitions (Hawkins, 2008).
Nonetheless, if you look at the factor of Myanmar being a ‘core’-nation or peripheral nation, we have to presume that the crisis is of lesser interest to the Western world, as Myanmar is a peripheral nation. It simply doesn’t majorly contribute to the worldwide economy (Hawkins, 2012).
Besides, we have to note that the conflict isn’t particularly a simple one and therefore not very attractive for the media to cover (Hawkins, 2008). First of all, the conflict has roots that date back to the Imperial times of the UK, something you couldn’t possibly explain in a short news report.
Secondly, who actually is the “bad guy here”? The Muslims for starting it all up again? The army for cracking down out of retaliation? Or Aung San Suu Kyi for not being able to recognize the situation? (Green & McManus, 2015). Not having a clear line between good and bad in a conflict is a crucial factor for media to decide whether to give it a certain amount of coverage or not (Hawkins, 2008).
Lastly, another factor why we see a sudden decline in the Rohingya coverage and a subtle rise in the coverage on Syria is because of the fact that in October, the International Coalition retook a major oil area from ISIS as well as the city of Kirkuk. Again, this event concerned heavy gunfights and spectacular images. In media’s eyes a better product to sell as it is sensational with a good contrast between good and bad (Cockburn, 2017). Presumably, media’s eyes shifted swiftly from a crisis, far from our bed, to one very close, as our armies are directly involved (Hawkins, 2008).
In the end, we could question why it is important for certain conflicts to be reported. As the cited map in this work shows, there are as much as 40 conflicts going on. “Why aren’t they being covered properly?” is a question that will always remain. With these theories and the analysis on the coverage of the Rohingya crisis, I have tried to create a certain amount of comprehension whilst attempting to remain neutral about the fact whether media are doing right or wrong.
When it comes down to it, we see that media will always follow their national, political and special interests as it is good for their wallet, even if that means not reporting a certain war, conflict or violent development anywhere in the world.
Because we ignored certain conflicts in history, we have created vicious circles that prevent them from being covered today. These conflicts have become too complex and therefore too uninteresting, too unsensational and irrelevant that media have simply stopped caring for them. In contrary, they remained with their traditional model of finding easy conflicts, in which there are simple actors, good vs. bad. A conflict should be as easy to explain as a football game in order to gain attention.
Plus, a medium’s country being involved in one of these conflicts simply is a nice bonus, as it brings home the bacon. Today media don’t quite look for the facts they bring, but how much of the public’s interest those facts can earn them. That’s where contemporary media, with all its opportunities, run into a ditch.
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