Head to the homepages of major news sites today, and you'll get the impression that the bombing near the Iranian embassy in Beirut, the early warnings about HealthCare.gov's technical problems, and the travail's of Toronto's scandal-saturated mayor are among the biggest stories in the world right now.
Or are they?
Defining what's news, as any editor will tell you, is an inherently subjective exercise, and a new set of charts by the Oxford Internet Institute's Information Geographies blog captures more than three decades of our efforts to do so.
The map above shows locations mentioned in news coverage of events between 1979 and 2013, as compiled by the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT). Researchers Mark Graham and Stefano De Sabbata pored over the database and isolated 43 million events in which the primary actors were located in different places, and then plotted the results. The brighter the line in the image above, the more links there are between locations.
It's a visual that offers some interesting insights about the countries that have dominated headlines since 1979. The United States emerges as a "core geographical focal point" for the events tracked, according to the researchers, most often appearing alongside Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Russia in articles about international affairs. Don't be fooled by the fact that the American Midwest appears in the map as a hive of activity—when actors are assigned a country but not a city or town in GDELT's data set, they appear in the geographic center of that country.
As Graham and De Sabbata point out, excluding the United States, the two most connected countries in news stories are Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the two most connected cities are Seoul and Pyongyang. Sub-Saharan Africa emerges as the region that is most disconnected from the coverage analyzed.
The findings square with another analysis of the same database released by Graham and De Sabbata last month. In the graphic below, the size of each pie correlates with the number of news events occurring in each region, and the size of each slice indicates the relative percentage of events taking place in each country. North America and Asia dominate, while Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America receive scant attention relative to the size of their populations. Asia accounts for a similar number of events as North America even though Asia's population is, by Graham and De Sabbata's calculation, roughly 12 times larger. Conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa receive more attention than conflict zones in Africa like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
These charts don't paint a full picture of the global media landscape, and they aren't necessarily an indictment of the media's obsession with certain countries and regions. Some might argue that the press is sensibly crafting its coverage based on the distribution of geopolitical power and reader demand. On the methodological side, GDELT's database is weighted heavily toward articles published in the past decade and Western news sources. Plus, beyond questions of media bias, factors like freedom of the press, Internet penetration, and the maturity of media markets play a major role in influencing the geographic scope of international news coverage.
Still, what Graham and De Sabbata have uncovered is consistent with other research on the topic—at least when it comes to American and Western European coverage. For three years straight, for example, Benjamin Hennig at the University of Oxford has mapped the world as it would look if the size of countries was based on the number of times Britain's Guardian newspaper covered them. Here's how the map looked in 2012 (coverage of the United Kingdom is excluded):
And while it may not come as a surprise that countries like the United States, Israel, and Russia receive significantly more attention than their counterparts in Latin America and Africa, it's still worth noting that the geography of reporting—which is formed as much by human judgment as by the caprice of current events—influences the ways in which we perceive the world. At least, that is, when outlets cover international news in the first place. As Alisa Miller, CEO of Public Radio International, noted in a 2008 TED talk, news networks have drastically scaled back their foreign bureaus in recent years. "Aside from one-person ABC mini-bureaus in Nairobi, New Delhi, and Mumbai, there are no network news bureaus in all of Africa, India, or South America, places that are home to more than 2 billion people," she noted at the time.