Tale of Two News Feeds

· Posted by Joshua in Headlines, Internet, Media

Protests in Egypt continue to make headlines across the globe today, but not everyone is getting the same story. Take a look at this morning’s (8:00am CDT) top story from the web feeds of two leading news agencies on opposite sides of the Atlantic: the AP in the United States, and the BBC in the United Kingdom.

AP “Top Headlines” Feed (archived | live):

Gangs free militants, foreigners try to flee Egypt
“Gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn Sunday, helping to free hundreds of Muslim militants and thousands of other inmates as police vanished from the streets of Cairo and other cities.” (article)

BBC “Top Stories” Feed (archived | live):

Protesters dominate central Cairo
“Anti-government protesters take over the centre of the Egyptian capital Cairo, as armed citizens’ groups form to counter widespread looting.” (article)

These stories naturally each go on at length, but I’ve only copied the headline and summary broadcast by each organization’s RSS/Atom feed. Often, this is all that subscribers glance at anyway.

Although both reports are rooted in fact, the difference in emphasis is startling. The AP headline, “Gangs free militants, foreigners try to flee Egypt,” stresses chaos, danger, and crime. The less sensational BBC headline, “Protesters dominate central Cairo,” stresses the scope of protest — a human right. You might say that the BBC emphasizes “civil” and the AP emphasizes “disobedience.”

The summaries show even more contrast. The AP raises the familiar American terror of “Muslim militants” freed by “gangs of armed men”, whereas the BBC recognizes “armed citizens’ groups.” These are not instances of using different terms to refer to the same thing; the focus is on different facts altogether. The facts are, however, related: the AP establishes that “police vanished from the streets,” stressing a descent into chaos, while the BBC confirms that “citizens’ groups form to counter widespread looting,” stressing the people’s positive attempts to maintain order.

What I’ve described is only one isolated example of the disparate perspectives that can arise between two supposedly neutral and objective news agencies. The Internet’s deleterious effects on our attention spans might exaggerate these differences, for when news writers compress complicated stories into one-sentence blurbs for syndication, they’re likely to concentrate their biases too. Thankfully, the Internet also provides readers with mechanisms for dealing with bias: we can subscribe to a dozen feeds like this from around the world and gain diverse perspectives on every issue, we can click “read more” for the full story, and we can discuss the news on blogs or social networks. The Internet gives us more tools for making sense of the world than ever before — and more reason to use the tools it gives us.

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  1. This is very interesting, but as a student of the propaganda class, I am not surprised in the difference of wording. No one can be completely objective, and everyone focuses on different parts of the story. I don’t remember if the news has always been this way or if it has changed and become more bias…

  2. I wish I could have taken that propaganda class, and that such classes were more common. Of course, I don’t think this is really an instance of deliberate propaganda, I think it’s simply what you said: no one can be completely objective, and everyone focuses on different parts of the story.

    What’s interesting to me isn’t so much that the bias is there, but how the Internet affects it. We are confronted with so much info online that I suspect people are less likely to read a whole article at a website than they would have been when they still read newspapers. We can thus lose out on a lot of the nuance and detail that’s necessary to keep things objective. However, the abundance of information on the Internet also gives us the power to compare all these different sources and viewpoints very easily, so we can still develop a nuanced view, but now it’s coming more from a multiplicity of voices than from a multiplicity of reported details.