A Comparison Study of The Washington Post’s Coverage of Violence in Syria and Mexico

My final project to finish off my Master’s degree.  Was a fun one to do.


            Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in late 2010, American media have closely covered the changing of regimes in the Middle East and North Africa at a very rapid pace in a relatively short period of time.  In some cases, such as Egypt and Tunisia, protesters have been successful overthrowing their authoritarian governments.  In other cases, such as Bahrain and Iran, the protests have had far smaller impacts.  And in almost all cases, as would be expected, the regimes in power have done whatever possible to hold on to that power, including violently putting down these protests.  The Arab Spring country that has experienced the bloodiest attempt at an overthrow has been Syria, as over 100,000 people have lost their lives and over 1 million have been displaced from their homes (Nebehay, 2013). 

            What might be surprising to many Americans, considering the lack of news coverage, is there is another country in the world, much closer to the United States both politically and geographically, that has experienced over 100,000 casualties and over 1 million displaced citizens since its government began using the military within its own borders to battle large, well organized groups too heavily armed for regular police to handle (Booth, 2012; Fausset, 2013).  That country is Mexico and, since former President Felipe Calderon made the decision in late 2006 to use the Mexican armed forces to battle increasingly powerful drug cartels, violence has escalated to the point where gruesome massacres have become a common occurrence. 

            It is easy to see why Mexico might receive far less coverage than Syria when keeping in mind the close relationship between political elites and the media and the fact that dealing with the violence in Mexico would mean dealing with two highly volatile political issues in the United States: gun policy and the drug war.  Scherlen (2012) points out that sitting political actors almost never voice support for terminating the drug war but many former elected officials willingly call for its stoppage once they are no longer interested in holding public office.  Gun control proposals to deal with the violence in Mexico are also politically toxic subjects and Mehalko (2012) illustrates some of the known issues regarding U.S. weapons and the increasingly well-armed drug cartels.  The U.S. government studied weapons captured by Mexican authorities and found that nearly 90% originated in the United States.  Cartels are regularly buying weapons in the U.S. and smuggling them back to Mexico because gun restrictions are so heavy and only one firearm store run by the military exists in Mexico.  The lax gun restrictions in southwestern border states make the acquisition of high-powered weapons easy for drug cartels as some have estimated the number of guns crossing the border could be as high as 2,000 per day.  A more recent study found the number to be lower but still adding up to more than 250,000 per year (Johnson, 2013).

            This paper examines media coverage of the violence in Syria and Mexico during a period of time where the overall number of casualties in each country was roughly equal.  A close examination of The Washington Post’s treatment of each war will show a large discrepancy between the two as Syria received over five times more articles in a five month period than Mexico received in six months.  This study will also show significant differences in the level of interest from U.S. officials in each war, how each government is depicted in these wars, and the number and aggressiveness of the calls for action to remedy the violent situations in each country.  Overall, this paper will show that, while there is a great interest in trying to solve the problems causing so much bloodshed in Syria, little motivation exists in U.S. political elites to search for answers to the violence in Mexico.


Literature Review

            The first step in identifying why two different international events causing roughly an equal amount of casualties would receive unequal amounts of news coverage in the United States is to recognize who typically sets the agenda on foreign policy.  In this area, political elites, such as members of Congress and government officials, are the main sources of information for most Americans as their foreign policy attitudes are generally shaped by these political players (Hayes and Guardino, 2011).  The executive branch, in particular, dominates the realm of agenda setting on foreign policy.  Mermin (1997: p. 387) points out that the White House, State Department, and Pentagon produce an abundant and “consistent flow of statements, briefings, speeches, hearings, resolutions, and other forms of information on the events of the day.”  Scholars have also found that anytime a foreign event threatens the values and dominant culture of the country, the White House’s frame will dominate media coverage and public opinion.  Other elites and journalists will even follow along with that frame to block dissonance from affecting the public’s views (Entman, 2003).

Further support for this conclusion is found in Entman’s (2003: p. 8) cascading activation model, which attempts to “help explain how thoroughly the thoughts and feelings that support a frame extend down from the White House through the rest of the system – and who thus wins the framing contest and gains the upper hand politically.”  A key aspect of this model is spreading activation, which focuses on first impressions in agenda setting and how, even when new issues arise, previous stimuli will typically aid in forming perceptions on whatever changing situations come about.  This is crucial when events are framed by elites because it can determine whether the public views the new situation as a crisis worthy of attention or something that can be ignored.  Entman (2003) illustrates this with the example of the George W. Bush administration downplaying the nuclear ambitions of North Korea while focusing on alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Through this elite framing, the public came to mostly view one as a crisis at the time and the other as a situation that could be dealt with in the months and years to come without it spinning out of control.

The frame to new events and continuing problems is often issued by political elites but it must be brought to the public by the media.  The close relationship between elites and the media has been documented by many researchers over time and the connection is very clear (Mermin, 1997; Herman and Chomsky, 2002; Entman, 2003; Baumgartner and Jones, 2009; Hayes and Guardino, 2010).  Elites need the media to help set the agenda on the events they want covered and the media needs access to new information in order to keep their audiences interested in their material.  Entman (2003: p. 2) points out the association between elites and the media is “less distant and more cooperative than the ideal envisions, especially in foreign affairs.”  Baumgartner and Jones (2009) note what the public is initially exposed to from the media is a combination of factual information and the interpretations by political elites of that information, not necessarily truly objective explanations of the events.  Hayes and Guardino’s (2010) research further supports Bennett’s indexing theory, which says the media mirrors the range of political discourse expressed by government officials, therefore, if there is no opposition to policy from political elites, the media will present a one-sided argument to events.  This perspective is then largely accepted and ingrained in the public and there will be very little in the way of domestic opposition to U.S. foreign policy decisions.  Mermin’s (1997) research on U.S. intervention in Somalia also supports the theory that the media only begin to push hard for policy action in international events once political elites have decided action is needed.

Along with the media working closely and mirroring the ideas of elites, the media outlets also mirror each other in their coverage.  Just about all media outlets will focus on the same new issues when they are exciting to the public but their coverage collectively dwindles as the new becomes old (Baumgartner and Jones, 2009).  This type of media coverage of issues suggests a common cycle in issue interest that eventually leads to a decline in public attention or collective boredom with the issue (Neuman, 1990).  Henry and Gordon (2001: p. 169) summarize the various theories on media cycles by proposing three stages for most issues: “developing or rising interest, declining interest, and an equilibrium level of interest that is subject to only mild fluctuations”.  These theories should be noted along with Zhu’s (1992) zero-sum theory on issue attention which states the public has a limited carrying capacity for issue attention and any new interest in a rising issue comes at the cost of declining concern in “old” problems.

While elites and government officials do issue a flood of information to be scrutinized, journalists still have to make a choice about what deserves attention and what doesn’t for their stories (Mermin, 1997).  Neuman (1990) notes, particularly on foreign policy, the media cannot tell people what to think but can tell people what to think about and, if they are persistent, it’s possible for an issue to catch-on in the public arena.  This obviously gives the media a lot of political power in that they can choose to illuminate an issue for their audience as well as hide problems that may seem unnecessary to spend time and resources following.  It is through this relationship the public gains information for voting decisions and voters typically learn about problems “in direct proportion to the emphasis placed on the campaign issues by the mass media” (McCombs and Shaw, 1972: p. 177).  In this vein, Baumgartner and Jones (2009) argue media coverage of important issues is “feast or famine” as problems can be ignored for years at a time until certain periods of attention arise, such as the fluctuating interest in tobacco issues over recent decades. 

Another aspect that should be noted is how the media chooses to convey information to the public.  Entman (2003: p. 151) found newspapers would run front page stories that gave a version of foreign events that had been framed by the White House while at the same time denouncing the administration for “misleading and even immoral policy making” on its editorial pages.  This gave the government the chance to define the problem before the public had had any exposure to what had occurred and how and why it happened.  Entman also shows other differences in the media’s coverage of two civilian airplanes being shot down in the 1980s, one a Korean plane downed by Soviet forces and the other an Iranian aircraft destroyed by the U.S. military.  In these instances the media cooperated with the White House to quell opposition to its frames by often calling the Soviet attack intentional and deeming the U.S. attack an accident and spending much more time running sympathetic stories about the Korean victims while mostly ignoring the Iranians. 

A few interesting changes have occurred since the time of these attacks and the ending of the Cold War and that is the increasing domestic criticism of American foreign policy and the growing influence of foreign voices on these debates (Hayes and Guardino, 2010).  Entman (2003) notes the end of the Cold War has emboldened political elites to criticize White House foreign policy decisions more often and openly without seeming unpatriotic.  In other words, domestic criticism of American foreign policy during the Cold War was seen as a commendation of the enemy at that time, but now there is no superpower opposing the U.S. in the world so negative comments are no longer seen in the same light.  Also, the influence of disapproving foreign voices has grown in the U.S. but in a seemingly curious way.  Hayes and Guardino (2010, 2011) show in their research how foreign elites helped fill a void in opposition in the buildup to the Iraq War where little existed and how they influenced the domestic resistance that was present.  But that is not the whole story.  They also point out foreign voices cannot replace domestic ones for appropriate foreign policy criticism to the American public.  Entman (2003) echoes this finding and suggests the reason is because of the political culture of the United States where foreign voices are typically ignored or seen as lacking in credibility by the American public.  The way this relationship seems to work is if the nondomestic voices criticizing American foreign policy can influence the political elites in the U.S. enough to have them repeat their concerns, the American public will hear these opinions, trust them more, and be residually affected by foreign elites. 

How information about foreign policy makes its way to the public is important since most Americans derive their foreign policy attitudes from political elites (Hayes and Guardino, 2011).  It should be noted that foreign policy is a “non-obtrusive” issue for the public since most aren’t directly affected by it in the same way they may be affected by a possible change in taxes or inflation (Neuman, 1990).  In this sense, the public typically receives information about foreign events from sources that have already had a chance to set the agenda in a way that benefits the source as much as possible and makes the most positive first impression currently feasible.  Entman (2003: p. 123) summarizes this dynamic by stating, “The public’s actual opinions arise from framed information, from selected highlights of events, issues, and problems rather than from direct contact with the realities of foreign affairs.”  He also points out this is a potential way of limiting debate as hegemony theorists argue political elites and government officials restrain the information they release in such a way that narrows “ideological boundaries” so “democratic deliberation and influence are all but impossible.”  Hayes and Guardino (2011) note the American public lacks political knowledge and an appropriate array of options for sources of information to articulate policy preferences on foreign affairs when there is a lack of “elite cues” coming from the media. 

In the case of foreign events that could possibly lead to some type of military intervention by the U.S., such as the civil war in Syria and the war against the drug cartels in Mexico, elites may avoid the issue or temper their rhetoric because of the public’s reaction to American casualties.  Despite the reality that the public may lack knowledge about foreign events, it is still possible for these situations to become much more of a direct concern when the U.S. intervenes militarily, for example the war in Vietnam (Neuman, 1990).  We might not find it surprising that mounting casualties decrease support for policy, but Gartner (2008: p. 104) conducted experiments that show a somewhat surprising element related to this idea: “The probability of victory is not a substitute for casualties.”  In other words, just because a military intervention is making progress and heading in the direction of victory and political elites are using their pulpits to inform voters of this development, public support will still dwindle if an increase in casualties occur.  This could certainly make political elites reluctant to support any policy that could potentially lead to military action unless success is assured and the human cost will be very low. 

Casualties are not the only rationale for inaction on policy as many reasons exist for lack of production and movement by the government.  Howitt and Wintrobe (1995) highlight three key reasons for policy inaction in the U.S. starting with the reality that both political parties may want the status quo on an issue because the alternatives may be even worse.  An example of this would be changing election rules that would allow more competition from smaller political parties in the U.S. and threaten the hold of the two parties in power.  Second, too much polarization by the parties and the candidates that win elections create a larger chance for inaction by reducing the likelihood for compromises on new policies or changes to existing ones.  Elected officials in highly polarized political environments feel they must stand strong for their views and not work with the opposing faction or risk being ousted by someone more extreme in their own party.  Third, policy inaction can occur because of a divided government where one party controls one branch of government while the other party controls another, which is the circumstance we see in the U.S. during the period of time observed in this study.  In this scenario, neither party wants to risk adopting a policy position that is unpopular enough to unseat them from the branch of government they currently hold so both choose to do nothing. 

Related to these reasons for policy inaction is scarcity of attention to issues by political elites for various reasons.  If an issue is simply not broached by either party, there will be little chance for any changes to occur.  Entman (2003) points out issues will be reduced to low priority or irrelevance for politicians seeking to win elections if they perceive the issue to be a minor concern for their constituents.  There will also be a lack of attention put on issues by unelected institutional actors and vested interests that stand to lose their power if too much concern is directed at a problem they have not addressed (Baumgartner and Jones, 2009).  Lastly, money plays a big role in politics and parties are unlikely to compete on issues if their major investors agree on the status quo, such as large defense budgets (Herman and Chomsky, 2002).

            Taking this previous research into account, we can create a few hypotheses as to what we might expect when examining the coverage of the internal wars in Syria and Mexico: 

1.      If there is a difference in the amount of media coverage in that one country is favored over the other, we should see a larger number of U.S. officials being quoted and showing their concern about the favored country. 

2.      If one country is favored more, we should see noticeable differences in how the victims are described in order to garner sympathy for their cause and push readers to want some type of action very soon to stop their plight.  We should also see a clear difference in how the perpetrators of the violence are depicted to readers so as to make them into more evil and sadistic entities that need to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

3.      Finally, we should see more aggressive calls for action against the more closely covered country on a more frequent basis, particularly through editorials, as it will be portrayed as the moral and righteous action to be perform.


Method and Data

            To investigate the difference in media coverage of the Syrian civil war and the Mexican drug war, this study will be focusing on the treatment of each by The Washington Post over a period of time in early-to-mid 2012.  For Syria, the articles observed begin on March 1, 2012 and end on July 31, 2012, a period of 152 days.  For Mexico, the instance covered begins February 1, 2012 and ends July 31, 2012, a period of 181 days.  The articles were gathered through a Lexis-Nexis search of The Washington Post and searching all articles with either “Syria” or “Mexico” included in the piece.  Duplicated articles – or articles that appeared twice because they were published both online and in print versions of the paper – were eliminated along with any article that mentioned the countries but did not mention the wars or only made a brief or residual mention while focusing on another subject.  During the time frame studied for each, the number of casualties in both countries was estimated to be in the 10,000-12,000 range. 

            It must be noted that the casualty counts are only estimates and the accurate number of deaths in both cases is difficult, and maybe impossible, to obtain for different reasons.  In Mexico, the problem of an accurate count is largely impeded because of two key factors.  First, the government stopped releasing figures regarding casualties in its drug war in early 2012 so only estimates from outside groups or news reports can be used (Castillo, 2013).  Second, drug cartels have a distinct interest in concealing their losses so they typically hide or dissolve the bodies of the dead in fluids in order to mask the actual number of members they have lost.  The victims meeting this demise are counted as “missing”, instead of dead, which leaves us with an artificially low number for the total casualties (Tuckman, 2011; “Cartel Members”, 2012).  In Syria, the number of dead is reportedly skewed by both sides of the war for political reasons.  The Syrian government will release lower body counts in order to hide the total damage and keep the possibility of outside military intervention to a minimum.  The Syrian rebels release higher body counts and sometimes count fighters as civilians in order to garner sympathy from other countries to help them with their cause (Al Jazeera Staff, 2012; Narwani, 2013). 

            With those caveats in mind, we can only utilize reported estimates to obtain the casualty counts used for this study.  In the case of Mexico, it was reported that the total number of deaths for 2012 was as low as 20,568 (Castillo, 2013) or as high as 26,037 (Molloy, 2013).  From these estimates, one can assume that a typical six month period in 2012 would contain between 10,000 and 13,000 deaths due to Mexican drug violence.  In the case of Syria, information obtained from the articles drawn on in this study from The Washington Post is used.  In an article titled “Remembering 1982 Massacre in Hama” appearing on March 2, 2012, it was reported over 7,500 Syrians had been killed since the uprising had begun in March of 2011.  In an article titled “Assad Forces Pound Rebel-Held Aleppo” appearing July 30, 2012, it was reported that 19,000 people had died since the uprising began.  This gives us an estimate of 12,500 casualties in the period studied.  By taking casualties from a later time in the Syrian civil war, I am allowing, as best as I can, issue boredom to set in since the Mexican drug war began nearly five years prior to the Syrian uprising (Neuman, 1990). 

            Once the range of dates for this study had been established, a simple counting of the articles was conducted to determine which situation received more coverage by The Washington Post.  Considering the research mentioned in the literature review (Hayes and Guardino, 2011; Entman, 2003; etc.), this will give us an idea of what situation is more important to the elected officials and political elites at the top of the United States’ political arena who are typically setting the foreign news agenda for the country.  There will also be a count of the number of articles for each war from journalists and news services versus the number of editorials giving us an idea of which situation the newspaper was more likely to use its harshest criticism on and where it devotes its extra printing space. 

            After these counts are taken, each article will be read and elements within those pieces will be measured.  Building off the research regarding the impact of foreign voices on American foreign policy events by Hayes and Guardino (2010) and Entman (2003), the sources of information used in each article and their origin will be tallied.  I will separate each into one of four categories: U.S. government sources, foreign officials, non-governmental sources, and no sources.  “U.S. government sources” will be any source that is an elected official, appointed official, or civil servant within the U.S. government.  “Foreign officials” will be counted if they are a member of a foreign government or political party or, in the case of Syria, a high-level leader within the Syrian opposition forces since their clear goal is the overthrow of the Syrian regime and the establishment of a new government, presumably setup by the opposition leaders.  I’ll also include United Nations officials since the U.N. does have the power to enact penalties and sanctions on foreign governments and exudes some governmental powers across the world.  “Non-governmental sources” will be any information originating from academics, interest groups, or civilians.  In the case of Syria, I will also include any instances where information is garnered from “activists” inside the country since this occurred frequently and no further description was given as to who these people were much of the time.  “No sources” will be any instance where there is no direct indication of where information originated.  Some articles will fit into more than one of these categories.

            I will then assess how often the fatalities of the wars are described as innocent victims or civilian casualties who should not have died because of the violence.  Articles will be placed into one of two categories: focus on innocents and non-descriptive casualties.  “Focus on innocents” will be any instance where casualties are described using words such as innocent or civilian victims, any mention of children being killed, or any clear description of a non-combatant being killed by the fighting between warring groups.  “Non-descriptive casualties” will be any article that makes no mention of casualties, describes the deaths of active combatants in the wars, such as soldiers, militia, rebels, or drug cartel members, or mentions casualties but does not specify if the victim or victims were combatants or non-combatants.  It is possible a difference might be found between Syrian and Mexican casualties similar to that found by Entman (2003) between Korean and Iranian victims. 

            Following this will be an evaluation of whether the articles take a stance on the Syrian or Mexican government’s actions toward their opposition and if that stance inclines the reader to view the government in a positive or negative way instead of allowing them to make their own judgment.  Three categories will be used for this section: abusive government, rational government, or non-descriptive.  “Abusive government” will be any mention of human rights abuses, government sanctioned torture, or killing of civilians by government forces or general descriptions of the government or persons in charge of it being sadistic, maniacal, etc.  “Rational government”, in the case of Mexico, will be any reference to the government fighting crime when using the military to combat the drug cartels or keeping their innocent population safe from violence.  In the case of Syria, placing an article in this category will be any mention of the government rationally holding on to its power against the rebel forces or the government fighting against terrorism.  “Non-descriptive” will be all articles where no stance is taken on the actions of the government toward its people.  Some articles will fit into both the abusive and rational categories. 

            A quick note must be made here regarding Syria and what constituted government forces and what did not.  The Syrian government is not the only force fighting to keep the regime in power.  Pro-government militias, known as “shabihas”, have also taken up arms and gained strength while fighting rebel forces.  In some articles, shabihas were accused of atrocities and human rights abuses – as were some rebel groups – but these instances were not counted as enough to fit the label of “abusive government”.  The reason for this is that none of the articles made it clear to the reader exactly how much control, if any, the Syrian government has over these militias.  Since this relationship is ambiguous, these events were not registered as being descriptive of the government.

            Finally, there will be an assessment of the recommended paths going forward in the articles in terms of the violence in Syria and Mexico.  There will be four possible categories in this section with articles potentially falling into one, two, or three of the four: calls for U.S. military intervention, calls for policy changes, calls for peaceful diplomacy, or non-descriptive.  “Calls for U.S. military intervention” will be any recommendation for the United States military to get directly involved in these countries and attacking or impeding a force in any way, such as enforcement of a no-fly zone.  “Calls for policy changes” will be any article that promotes policy changes other than negotiations between the warring sides.  In the case of Mexico, this would be changes such as alterations of gun or drug laws or adjustments to the policing methods within the country.  In the case of Syria, this would be changes such as increasing sanctions on the government, arming of rebel groups, or increasing humanitarian and non-humanitarian aid to the Syria people.  “Calls for peaceful diplomacy” would be any endorsement of diplomatic discussions between the two warring sides that would bring about an end to the violence.  “Non-descriptive” would be any article where no clear support of any changes for the future appears. 


Results and Discussion

            Table 1 shows the total article count, the number of editorials versus news pieces, the number of days covered for each country, and the average number of articles published per day during this period of time.  The coverage of Syria was almost six times the amount of coverage received by Mexico during this stretch of months, a gap that would have been even larger if the month of February was eliminated from the Mexico coverage where 10 of the 38 total articles appeared.  The ratio of news versus editorials also favored Syria as one editorial appeared for every three news pieces.  The ratio for Mexico was roughly 1:7.  In terms of the stated hypotheses, Syria is firmly established over Mexico as the favored country in overall news coverage.

Table 1 – Article Count

  News Articles(% of Total) Editorials(% of Total) Total Days Articles Per Day
Syria (Mar. 1-July 31, 2012) 168(76.71%) 51(23.29%) 219 152 1.44
Mexico (Feb. 1-July 31, 2012) 33(86.84%) 5(13.16%) 38 181 0.21


            One interesting aspect to note about the total articles regarding Mexico were mentions of the country in pieces concerning “Operation Fast and Furious”, which was an attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to combat illegal gun smuggling from the United States to Mexico.  Six articles appeared during the six months studied that dealt directly with this operation and mentioned Mexico but failed to go into any detail about the drug war against the cartels, a curious omission considering the program would likely not exist if not for the violence occurring across the U.S.’s southern border.  For this reason, these six articles were excluded from the total count.

Table 2 shows sourcing data for the information contained in the articles studied.  As the first hypothesis suggests, we see a higher percentage of U.S. government officials as sources of information for the favored country, Syria, and a lower percentage for Mexico.  Within these sources, there was also a clear difference in the level of office held by many of the officials.  In the case of Syria, most quotes were from higher level government officials, such as the president, senators, and cabinet members.  In the case of Mexico, much of the information originated from lower level law enforcement officials who deal directly with the drug and gun issues tied to Mexico.  One reality that may have had an impact on these numbers was the fact that 2012 was an election year in the United States and most elected officials had little interest in broaching the subjects attached to the problems in Mexico mentioned earlier in this study.  It is possible we could see an increase in U.S. officials commenting on Mexico during non-election years. 

Table 2 – Sources

  US Gov. Source(% of Total) Foreign Official(% of Total) Non-Gov. Source(% of Total) None
Syria (Mar. 1-July 31, 2012) 104(47.49%) 145(66.21%) 155(70.78%) 7
Mexico (Feb. 1-July 31, 2012) 12(31.58%) 18(47.37%) 29(76.32%) 1


            The other large disparity we see in Table 2 is the percentage of foreign officials being the source for information, but there are two aspects that may have played a role in skewing these numbers slightly.  In the case on Syria, the United Nations was heavily involved in attempting to negotiate a peace settlement between the warring sides in the country and, in fact, a cease-fire took place in early April 2012 that stemmed much of the violence for a short period of time.  Because of its heavy involvement and near success at ending the hostilities during this period, the number of foreign officials quoted may have been higher than at other times during the civil war.  In the case of Mexico, a presidential election was also taking place in 2012 in which the candidates tended to avoid the subject of the drug war whenever possible (Agren, 2012).  Some articles appeared covering the election that either failed to mention the violence or only briefly alluded to it while focusing on the race itself.  These articles were not counted in the total and, as with the U.S. sources, it might be reasonable to expect more quotes in non-election years.

            Table 3 shows the depiction of victims for each country and, compared to the other measurements, the difference was much closer but still in favor of Syria.  This confirms part of the second hypothesis in that we see a greater emphasis on the innocent victims of the war occurring in the favored country, Syria, and less emphasis on the victims in Mexico.  Part of the reason for this could be the nature of the two wars in that, in the case of Mexico, we see a lot of fighting between drug cartels.  In other words, we see people perceived as criminals killing other criminals and the number of articles focusing on the innocent will likely be smaller in terms of the total percentage mentioning casualties.  While there has been some reported fighting between rebel groups in Syria, the level of violence between the cartels in Mexico is believed to be far greater.  If that type of bloodshed abated and the cartels focused on fighting the government more directly, it’s possible the percentages could be closer.

Table 3 – Victims

  Focus on Innocents(% of Total) Non-Descriptive Casualties(% of Total)
Syria (Mar. 1-July 31, 2012) 136(62.1%) 83(37.9%)
Mexico (Feb. 1-July 31, 2012) 21(55.26%) 17(44.74%)


            Table 4 shows how the governments of each country are depicted in the articles studied.  The results are in line with part of the second hypothesis in that the favored country’s government, Syria, is depicted in a much more negative light in comparison to the actions of the Mexican government.  The articles make a clear establishment of what government the reader should direct their anger at and come to welcome calls of action against.  We should certainly expect a difference considering the nature of the opposition in both countries.  In Syria, the opposition is fighting to overthrow a government known for past human rights abuses.  In Mexico, the opposition’s main goal is to make money off of products largely demonized for many decades by many outlets of the U.S. media.  But in both cases there were various reports of human rights abuses by both governments toward its citizens.  What we do not know is what level of abuse occurred in each country and how rampant the abuse was in both.  Without knowing that, we cannot be sure what we should expect the percentages to be and how descriptive they truly are of the level of government abuses going on in each country.

Table 4 – Description of Government Actions

  Abusive Gov.(% of Total) Rational Gov.(% of Total) Non-Descriptive/None(% of Total)
Syria (Mar. 1-July 31, 2012) 119(54.34%) 29(13.24%) 87(39.73%)
Mexico (Feb. 1-July 31, 2012) 6(15.79%) 19(50%) 15(39.47%)


            Table 5 shows the number of calls for action in Syria and Mexico and what general type of action was promoted in the articles studied.  Calls for change in Syria were much more frequent and aggressive than the endorsements of action in Mexico.  Two aspects should be noted concerning these results.  As mentioned earlier, the United Nations had negotiated a cease-fire in early April that was intended to bring about a peaceful settlement between the Syrian government and the rebel groups.  The push for this settlement at this time may have skewed the calls for peaceful diplomacy compared to other times during the civil war.  We would likely see a drop in the percentage of articles calling for a peaceful settlement as the violence ratcheted up to increased levels.  

Table 5 – The Path Forward

  US Military Intervention(% of Total) Policy Changes(% of Total) Peaceful Diplomacy(% of Total) Non-Descriptive/None(% of Total)
Syria (Mar. 1-July 31, 2012) 47(21.46%) 85(38.81%) 86(39.27%) 64(29.22%)
Mexico (Feb. 1-July 31, 2012) 1(2.63%) 19(50%) 1(2.63%) 19 (50%)


            The second factor worth noting is the difference in the calls for “policy changes” in both countries.  In the case of Syria, the changes were generally endorsements of external countries taking further action against the Syrian regime, such as arming the opposition or increasing economic sanctions.  In the case of Mexico, the policy changes promoted were typically calls for the Mexican government to change tactics in the drug war on its own with no outside influence.  Therefore, even within the one category where Mexico is the favored country in terms of the percentage, the calls for change still respected the sovereignty of the government and were typically much less aggressive than the pleas for changes in Syria.



            Deciphering how American media view foreign events and what level of importance it places on each event is a problematic task due to so many potential variables involved in every facet of the decision-making process.  The simple undertaking of choosing only two events to evaluate is thorny since so many other important occurrences will be taking place at the same time around the world.  Figuring out the reasons and motives of the media and why seemingly similar events get more coverage than others is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  We can, however, measure what is put in print and attempt to make small advances toward bigger answers as to how and why the media make these decisions and feed their audiences the info they choose for them.  This study is an attempt at being one of those small advances.

            Taking into account the reality that the media derive a great deal of its stories on foreign policy based on what information they can obtain through political elites, the results of this study suggest the number of casualties occurring because of foreign government-related violence within its own borders against armed groups is of little concern to American political elites.  Other issues appear to be more important when deciding where they focus their attention on international matters and play a bigger role than reported body counts.  We can extend and apply this assertion to the media as well if we consider how much of their editorial efforts they were willing to devote between the two countries observed.  In other words, when we see political elites or editors voicing their concerns over the number of casualties mounting in another country, we must simply ask if that is truly the key factor driving their interest. We can only speculate as to what the reasons are, but it should be recognized that each case will likely be different and each will take much more rigorous investigation to clarify. 

            This study also found results that we would have expected, considering past research, in terms of how the media depict victims, illustrate what actors are ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and how aggressive their calls for action are on the situations they favor versus the ones they tend to largely ignore.  Not only was there a massive difference in the total coverage of Syria over Mexico, there were significant differences in the content of the articles showing more favoritism toward action on Syria while tempering any endorsements of foreign (or domestic) policy change on Mexico.  If we accept Neuman’s (1990) notion that the media cannot tell people what to think but can tell them what to think about, it is clear the American media want the public to think about the atrocities in Syria at the detriment to the atrocities much closer to home in Mexico, even when the total number of people dying is roughly equal.

            There are many aspects of this study that can be taken much further and need more attention.  The first, and maybe most important, would be trying to construe how and why these types of decisions are made by both political elites and the media.  This paper briefly mentions some possible reasons, such as the effect of elections or policies that elected officials deem to risky to pursue, but going much deeper into that spectrum would be illuminating in our understanding of base decision-making by those at the top of this hierarchy.  Within this aspect, we might also ask what role, if any, body counts matter in what the media deems important for its audience.  That research could include comparing situations where the deaths are largely not induced by violence, such as Somalia where over 250,000 people – a number that more than doubles the victims in both Syria and Mexico combined during the same time period – perished because of a famine from October 2010 to April 2012 (United Nations, 2013).

            A few questions on the sourcing of information could also be researched much further than this study was able to achieve.  I mentioned in the results section that elections were taking place in both the United States and Mexico so, a comparison of quotes and comments during non-election years on these situations would be interesting to evaluate.  Also mentioned in the results was the fact that the U.S. officials quoted on Syria were generally higher ranking than the ones typically quoted on Mexico.  A possible question moving forward would be how long and often different levels of officials are quoted before any policy change actually happens in foreign affairs.  Is it measurable and what does it take in terms of media exposure to enact called for changes?  In specific regard to Syria, a measure of how often and effective the use of regime sources versus opposition sources is to readers would be an interesting study since both are foreign actors that may not be listened to very closely by Americans, according to previous research mentioned above. 

            Finally, an area that deserves further attention is the difference in the policy changes suggested for various foreign events.  I mentioned previously the clear difference in suggestions between Syria and Mexico and how the former were typically ideas imposed on Syria by outside forces while the latter were proposals the Mexican government could undertake with no violation of its sovereignty.  This brings up an array of questions for potential study.  Is there a proverbial “line” a government has to cross before the proposed solutions are ideas that would be imposed by an outside force?  Does the size of a country’s military play a role in what suggestions are made are made by the media, for instance, passive solutions for a militarily powerful country like Russia and more aggressive ideas for a weaker country like Somalia?  What is the effect of suggestions for change imposed by outside forces coming from within the country itself, for example, activists in Syria asking for the U.S. to intervene militarily or Mexican citizens pleading for similar actions?  Has there been a noticeable change in what it takes for the media to suggest the U.S. should intervene in a country since the Cold War era when the focus was on battling Communism so fiercely?  The myriad of ways the media could affect these areas allow plenty of room for further innovative research.

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