Karma at the Bottom of a Spray Can

Or, how to avoid international media myopia when you’re online


Bill Hicks once said that watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye. While we’re not too sure about third eyes, we do agree about the black spray paint. We spend a lot of time trying to show people that the mainstream media has a commercial logic that’s predicated on fear and innacurate perceptions of risk, and it distorts our view of the world. More recently, we’ve also been thinking about another kind of blind spot that comes from geographical bias, a form of media myopia that in some ways is even more insidious.

If you live in an English speaking country for example then a lot of the ‘international news’ you consume comes from a pretty limited range of sources. It’s mostly other English-speaking countries and a smattering from Europe, Asia and Africa. Once in a blue moon you’ll get a story from Latin America, and when you do it looks awfully familiar. Government corruption in Brazil, economic collapse in Venezuela, the escape and recapture of a druglord in Mexico.

Ever stopped to wonder what the 700 million people who live in Latin America are actually up to? They’ve got the same digital tools as the rest of the world. They’re connected 24/7 to the internet via their phones. In rural areas, they’re worried about jobs and the migration of young people to the cities and the breakdown of traditional family structures. They’re wondering what comes next after the resource boom. Their urban centres are home to co-working spaces, incubators and launchpads. They’re also having furious debates about diversity in business, class divides and fairness in politics.

In Brazil, the startup industry is booming. In Columbia, they’ve locked up a Panamanian entrepreneur for creating a cryptography app. In Argentina, womens’ groups have forced car companies to withdraw sexist user manuals, and workers in airports are going on strike over unfair payment conditions. Chile is in the midst of one of the great renewables transformations of all time. The same logic can be applied to northern India, or Russia, or Italy. When was the last time you heard something about one of the 94 million people living in Ethiopia that didn’t involve farming?

Of course it doesn’t make sense for the publications we read or the TV channels we watch to tell us genuinely interesting stories about people that live in unfamiliar places. If a story doesn’t conform to a stereotype or attract our interest then it doesn’t get clicks and views. And in an attention economy that’s a media death sentence. Unfortunately, while geographically biased, demand-driven reporting might have been okay in the old days, it’s inexcusable when more than half the world is now online.

The big conversations are global now and should be treated that way. We’re not saying you have to read La Nación every morning (although thanks to Google Translate you could if you wanted to). But perhaps the next time you’re online, move that spray can a little to the right and visit a digital only website like Quartz or Fusion, where they approach this stuff differently. Or sign up to something like Global Voices, a global online community of more than 1400 people that’s been doing this stuff since 2005.

Many of the world’s most interesting and important stories aren’t in just one place. Sometimes they’re scattered in bits and pieces across the Internet, in blog posts and tweets, and in multiple languages. These are the stories that matter, and the stories that we should all be listening to. Get out there and look for them. You might just find yourself pleasantly surprised by what’s really going on. And in the process, earn yourself a little bit of karma on the side.