Global Democracy and Western Media Bias – “Us vs.Them”

There have been a lot of complaints about news reporting by foreign media (mostly the U.S.-based media outlets) on the current ongoing conflict in Thailand.   We’ve been discussing these problems in my critical media studies classes, especially with issues concerning “parachute journalism” and sleazy journalism, so please allow me to address this topic.

Although there are a few international news organizations that are known for their impartial and unbiased reporting, many agencies are not able to report without bias.  Several factors that might lead to foreign media bias include: 1) the way foreign journalists often “parachute” into a country in crisis without prior historical, cultural and political background about that particular country (like many have complained, some of them rely mostly on Wikipedia),  2) a lack of understanding of local language (often times they rely on taxi drivers or local stringers or translators to help them get their reporting done),  3)  the pressure of article deadlines which is an important economic reason, and 4) their own political/personal ideologies or agendas. 

Combining all these factors together, we also see that when writing/ filing their reports about political conflicts such as this, some Western journalists tend to rely on a reporting formula, meaning they are socialized and trained to follow certain narrative patterns and themes when reporting conflicts.   They tend to base their stories on:  1) their own cultural/ political ideology/ identity (their own Western perspective pretty much), 2) recyclable (old) narratives in crisis and conflict reporting – a format with two opposing sides (good vs. bad and/or victims), which requires them to identify who the bad guys and the good guys are in each conflict, and 3) developing a story’s pattern with a dramatic climax, and a solution at the end. 

So, when we apply these factors to try to understand how Western (American) journalists report news about Thailand, it seems to be pretty clear why they keep framing the stories as “the fight for democracy” (or lack thereof), “the good guy vs. the bad guy”, the rich vs. the poor, the Reds vs. the Yellows.   On top of this, their audience is at home (Americans/ Western), not Thais.  They report their stories for the consumption of their target audience.  As a result, there is very little room for them to speak up for the “others” (in this case, the Thais) who they know, won’t even read their stories. The Thais are not their primary audience. Other complex issues within the culture tend to be ignored as well.
                                 Is Thai-style democracy dismissed by Foreign media? 

And to make the problem more complicated, voices heard and seen through the lenses of the so-called “Western media” in this digital communication age are more diverse than ever before.   Current events around the world are being narrated not only by mainstream media, but also by independent voices of citizen journalists whose sources may be mostly personal contacts. 

(On a side note:  I also notice this similar pattern of storytelling employed by Thai journalists in their news stories when reporting conflicts.   Worse, I see the lewd and harsh language that both Thai reporters and politicians use which makes me feel really depressed at times.   Because of this, I call the Thai culture “an emotive culture.”   But I will not delve into this now.) 

It’s very reasonable and justifiable for many Thai readers to be upset with the ways some of the Western reporters write their stories about the ongoing crisis. Truth is, it’s not very easy for them to report this conflict differently, if you know what I mean. The above factors I mentioned are their constraints.  And I’m not giving them any excuses.  These problems have been discussed in academia since the late 1960s.  There was a very intense debate in the 70’s and 80’s that led to a call for New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO).  UNESCO became the center of this debate. 

So, in addition to discussing these reporting problems, I also assign students in my Media in Global Perspective class a comparative study of news events that are covered in at least two different countries (from different continents, and in different languages).  Students have to compare and contrast how the same news event may be reported differently – or similarly – based on different cultural, political, and media systems.  

In fact, since the Thais are aware of these problems (as they have been remarking on the media bias), they should capitalize on this knowledge by making their story fit with the “global democracy” narrative.  Worse yet, many commentators rely on their old rhetoric and method (ancient ones – I wrote an article about this in 1997), viewing non-Thais as “outsiders” who don’t understand their “venerable traditions” and how “unique” the Thai culture and political system are, etc.  Further, they have been using this as an excuse to exclude and discriminate against foreigners at their convenience (whenever they see fit).   

Historically, the Thai elites have been using the “Thai vs. non-Thai”— “us vs. them” – narrative as a political tool.  In one study, I examined how Thai media reported on migrant workers in Thailand.  I found that the level of hateful and condescending language used against non-Thais was high, resulting in the ways some Thais justified treating Chinese immigrants (in the past), Vietnamese, Laos, Burmese and Cambodians very poorly and cruelly – as if they were subhuman.   Rural people have been treated the same way because they are not considered “central” or “real” Thais (and are mostly Laotian descendants).  Some of the expats and “farang” (Caucasians and non-Caucasians) who live in Thailand have also experienced similar prejudice at varying degrees.   Look at how Thai people treat black people, for example.  If this is not a double standard, what is? 

One question we may ask is how we can use mass media to project a different image of Thailand to the global audience.  Mr. Thaksin is smart in using multiple media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and PR strategies (re: The Guardian’s Bell Pottinger article).   To my disappointment, The Guardian article had no details whatsoever about how Thaksin and this PR firm employed their strategies.  The article merely mentioned Thailand in a blurb. Whether this is a proven fact, why would it be surprising or difficult to understand if Thaksin does resort to some PR strategies to build his “global image” based on the “democratic narrative”?  This narrative of a “democratically-elected” government overthrown by mobs (or tanks) fits perfectly with the Western media’s reporting formula.  Thus, the stories being told repeatedly by the global media are that Thaksin and Yingluck are the “victims” of the royalist/elitist mob (military) rules (regardless of the fact that Thaksin & Co. maybe very dirty and corrupt).   This narrative works well for global media and among a global audience that lacks knowledge and interest in the complex history and political systems of other nations.

One very important thing the anti-government protesters may have overlooked is that in the age of globalization, Thailand is no longer a closed country.   Any actions we choose to take are subject to being judged by the opinions of “outsiders,” and these outsiders can be a major factor in our politics whether we care or not.  We simply can’t avoid the scrutiny and criticism of the international community regardless of whether foreign media are being “biased” or “objective” in their news reporting.

Failing to understand this, the Thai elites can never win international public opinion.  Foreign media will continue to dismiss “Thai-style democracy.”  Obviously, it doesn’t sound very fair to the Thais. But unless we are North Korea, and we don’t care about what the outside world thinks of us, the Thai elites should begin to think about a new plan of action and a new narrative that fits the “global democratic ideology” rather than simply blowing whistles to intimidate opponents.  Without gaining favorable international media coverage, a “victory” may not be possible.

Dr. Suda Ishida is associate professor of Communication Studies and the director of the Certificate in International Journalism program at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A. Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, Suda worked as a teacher in an Indochinese refugee camp run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Thailand following her graduation. She went on to become a news reporter in several Bangkok-based media organizations, including The Nation daily newspaper and the Associated Press (Bangkok bureau). Professor Ishida earned an MA in international communication from Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, and a PhD in Mass Communications and Journalism from the University of Iowa. Her research focuses on mass media in Thailand, globalization and social movements.