Torbjörn Becker, Director of the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE), was elected as one of the new Fellow members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences together with 38 other prominent researchers and experts in the private and public sectors.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) has been a meeting place for Sweden’s future for more than 100 years. Serving as a unique intersection for academia, business, and policy-making, IVA brings together the expertise and experience of about 1.300 Academy Fellows and 250 member companies. IVA is financed through grants from the business community, foundation funds and direct government funding and is independent of individual interests, ideologies and party politics.
About Torbjörn Becker
Torbjörn Becker has been the Director of SITE at the Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden since 2006 and is a board member of several economics research institutes in Eastern Europe, including the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE).
Prior to this, he worked for nine years at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where his work focused on international macro, economic crises and issues related to the international financial system. He holds a Ph.D. from the Stockholm School of Economics and has been published in top academic journals and has contributed to several books and policy reports focusing on Russia and Eastern Europe.
Selected Publications by Torbjörn Becker
- Financing Ukraine’s victory: Why and how (2022)
- A blueprint for the reconstruction of Ukraine (2022)
- IMF’s New SDR Allocation—Why Belarus Is “Getting Money From the Fund” (2021)
- Does the Russian Stock Market Care About Navalny (2021)
- Economic Growth and Putin’s Approval Ratings —The Return of the Fridge (2019)
- The Russian economy under Putin (so far) (2019)
How much a country is talked about in the media can determine its place in the public debate. In this brief, we collect data on the mentions of Eastern and Western European countries in the main Swedish newspapers over the past decades. We find consistently more coverage devoted to Western compared to Eastern Europe in the Swedish press. We investigate several factors that could explain this pattern. We find that while Eastern European countries are on average not more geographically distant from Sweden, Sweden tends to have closer trade links with Western European countries. Sweden is more culturally similar to the average Western European country in terms of language, religion and attitudes, cultural values and social norms. Trade relations and cultural proximity are associated with higher media coverage.
The media plays a vital role in modern societies by keeping the public informed and policymakers accountable. Whether and how events are covered by the news determines their relevance in the public debate. There is ample empirical evidence on the agenda-setting power of the news media. For example, Snyder and Strömberg (2010) show that local press coverage affects how informed US voters are about their representatives and in turn how much their politicians work in the interest of their constituencies. Eisensee and Strömberg (2007) find that news coverage affects how much disaster relief the US sends to foreign countries.
In this brief, we study the amount of news coverage devoted to European countries in the Swedish press. We document a systematic difference between Western and Eastern Europe and explore underlying factors that could be important in explaining this East-West divide.
The East-West Divide
We choose the four most widely read Swedish newspapers (Aftonbladet, Expressen, Dagens Nyheter, and Svenska Dagbladet) and use the newspaper database Retriever Research Media Archive to obtain statistics on the number of mentions of each country between 1995 and 2021. A country mention is an article in which the name of a country appears. Since two or more countries can be named in the same article, the total number of mentions does not correspond to the number of articles. As a percentage of all articles published by the four newspapers in 2021, roughly 20% mention at least one of these countries. While this simple measure of news coverage can be informative, it does not take into account many other aspects of a country’s prominence in the news, such as the length of articles, where articles appear, the tone of coverage, etc.
Figure 1 plots the sum of annual number of mentions by region over time. We see a clear difference in the amount of coverage devoted to Eastern and Western European countries. Over the entire time period, the 21 Western European countries were mentioned on average 2.7 times more than the 22 Eastern European countries.
While there does not appear to be a trend in relative coverage, there is considerable variation from year to year. The year when the relative difference in the number of mentions is smallest is 2014. The two most mentioned Eastern European countries in that year were Russia and Ukraine. Coverage likely increased due to the Crimean Crisis, when Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in Southern Ukraine. The relative difference was also low in 2008, coinciding with the Russo-Georgian war in August. In that year, other newsworthy events, such as the Global Financial Crisis or the UEFA European Football Championship, have a more ambiguous effect on relative media coverage.
Figure 1. Country mentions in Swedish newspapers
What Explains This Discrepancy Between East and West?
There are a number of potential reasons why some countries systematically receive more attention in the press. In this section, we correlate the mean annual mentions of each country between 2019 and 2021 with different aspects of that country’s relationship with Sweden.
Distance and Population
Figure 2 shows how news coverage of a country depends on its geographic distance to Sweden and its population size. Overall, the further a country is from Sweden, the less that country is covered in the Swedish press. On average, Eastern European countries (in yellow) are covered less than Western European countries (in blue), for a given distance to Sweden. For example, Poland and Germany are both around 1000km away from Sweden, but Germany is mentioned almost twice as often in the Swedish press. As we measure the distance between the most populous city of each country and Stockholm, some of this difference in coverage is driven by the fact that countries sharing a border with Sweden receive extensive coverage. For instance, Denmark, Finland, and Norway are on average covered more than six times as much as Latvia.
Population also plays a role, that is, larger countries (e.g., Germany, Russia, Spain, and Poland) receive more coverage than smaller countries (e.g., Lithuania, Ireland, and Estonia). As Eastern European countries have on average smaller populations than Western European countries, population can partly explain the East-West difference in news coverage. One counterexample is Russia, which has more than twice as many people as France or the UK, but receives less coverage in the Swedish press.
Figure 2. Geographical distance and population
Trade and GDP
Figure 3 shows that Sweden’s economic relationship with a country affects how much the country features in Swedish news. We find a strong positive correlation of 0.8 between a country’s total trade volume with Sweden and country mentions in Swedish newspapers. As Sweden’s largest trading partners tend to be in Western Europe, this partly explains the relative coverage of East and West. Another factor is the overall size of a country’s economy (as measured by its GDP). Swedish newspapers more commonly mention countries with higher GDP, and these are more likely to be in Western than Eastern Europe.
Figure 3. Trade and GDP
There is a large literature documenting the link between cultural factors and the economic relationship between nations. For instance, studies show that similarities in ancestry, language, religion, norms and values can influence bilateral trade (Melitz, 2008; Guiso et al., 2009) and the diffusion of technology (Spolaore et al., 2009). In this section, we show how the amount of press coverage correlates with differences in language, religion, and values and norms using cultural distance data from Spolaore and Wacziarg (2016).
Figure 4.a shows that Swedish newspapers are more prone to cover countries whose languages are similar to Swedish. The language similarity measure originally developed by Fearon (2003) is based on the prevalence of languages within a country and distance between languages. The distance measure is calculated using linguistic trees provided in Ethnologue. It ranges from 0 (close) to 1 (distant) and reflects the expected number of common linguistic nodes between two randomly chosen individuals from each country and takes into account that countries can be linguistically heterogeneous (for more details, see Fearon 2003). Norway and Denmark are linguistically closest to Sweden, however, these are also two neighboring countries with which Sweden conducts extensive trade. On average, Eastern European countries are more linguistically distant from Sweden, although some Western European countries (such as France and Spain) are as linguistically distant from Sweden as many of the Eastern European countries and receive considerably more press coverage.
The religious distance measure by Spolaore and Wacziarg (2016) is calculated analogously to the linguistic distance measurement. It is based on the prevalence of different religions within a country and the distance between religions. Figure 4.b shows that countries that are religiously different from Sweden receive less coverage in the Swedish media. With the exception of the three Scandinavian countries, Eastern and Western European countries have similar levels of religious distance to Sweden. Based solely on this metric, the Swedish press mentions Eastern European countries less (and Western European countries more) than their religious distance to Sweden would predict.
Figure 4.c shows an index of a country’s cultural proximity to Sweden, that is, its distance in terms of cultural values, attitudes and norms based on average responses to the World Value Surveys from 1981 to 2010 (see Spolaore and Wacziarg, 2016). This cultural proximity index aggregates the Euclidian distances in survey responses between each country and Sweden. The index is standardized so that 0 shows the average country’s cultural distance to Sweden and negative (positive) values indicate above (below) average cultural similarity. Western European countries are significantly closer to Sweden than Eastern European countries based on this measure. As Swedish press coverage is on average declining in a country’s cultural distance to Sweden, this difference in country’s values and attitudes can explain some of the East-West difference in media coverage.
Figure 4. Cultural distance
Panel a. Linguistic distance
Panel b. Religious distance
Panel c. Distance in cultural values, attitudes, and norms
As the public and policymakers primarily receive information from the mass media, news coverage can have profound effects on public debate and policy decisions. Using data on the content of the four most widely read Swedish newspapers over the past decades, we measure how much the Swedish press covers Eastern and Western European countries. We find that over the past 25 years, there have been 2.7 times more mentions of Western than Eastern European countries. We find that the Swedish press is more likely to mention countries that are geographically closer, more populous, have a larger GDP and more trade with Sweden. Cultural proximity (as measured by language, religion and values, attitudes and social norms) also correlates with higher coverage. These factors are of course not independent from each other. For instance, the other Scandinavian countries with whom Sweden shares a border and a history, are culturally similar to Sweden and some of Sweden’s most important trading partners. They are also some of the countries that are most covered by the Swedish press. Some of these factors, such as sharing similar values, appear to explain the gap in coverage between East and West, while others, such as geographic distance, do not. More recently, concerns over energy security in the EU (see e.g., Le Coq and Paltseva, 2022) and the rise in military tension between Russia and Ukraine illustrate how developments in Eastern Europe can directly affect life here in Sweden. Perhaps it is time for Sweden to pay more attention to her eastern neighbours?
- Eisensee, T., & Strömberg, D. (2007). “News droughts, news floods, and US disaster relief”. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122(2), 693-728.
- Fearon, J. (2003) “Ethnic and Cultural Diversity by Country”, Journal of Economic Growth, 8, 195–222.
- Guiso, L., Sapienza, P., & Zingales, L. (2009). “Cultural biases in economic exchange?”. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(3), 1095-1131.
- Le Coq, C. & Paltseva, E. (2022). “What does the Gas Crisis Reveal About European Energy Security?” FREE Policy Briefs.
- Mayer, T. & Zignago, S. (2006). “GeoDist: The CEPII’s Distances and Geo-graphical Database” MPRA Paper No. 31243.
- Melitz, J. (2008). “Language and foreign trade”. European Economic Review”, 52(4), 667-699.
- Snyder, J. M., & Strömberg, D. (2010). “Press coverage and political accountability”. Journal of Political Economy, 118(2), 355-408.
- Spolaore, E., & Wacziarg, R. (2009). “The diffusion of development”. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(2), 469-529.
- Spolaore, E., & Wacziarg, R. (2016). “Ancestry, language and culture”. In The Palgrave Handbook of Economics and Language (pp. 174-211). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
Governments often take unpopular measures. To minimize the political cost of such measures policy makers may strategically time them to coincide with other newsworthy events, which distract the media and the public. We test this hypothesis using data on the recurrent Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We show that Israeli attacks are more likely to be carried out when the U.S. news are expected to be dominated by important (non-Israel-related) events on the following day. In contrast, we find no evidence of strategic timing for Palestinian attacks.
The role of media in today’s conflicts is enormous. Parties to conflicts use propaganda in state-sponsored media and enroll state-sponsored trolls in social media to gain domestic public support for their military campaigns and, more generally, to raise own popularity. Involvement of Russia in Syria and Eastern Ukraine and its coverage on Russia-sponsored TV is a forceful illustration of this. Some most devastating conflicts used state media to enroll paramilitary. For example, Yanagizawa-Drott (2014) estimated that 51,000 perpetrators in Rwandan genocide were persuaded to participate in mass killings by RTLM radio.
Not all the media are under control of parties involved in conflicts. What is the role of independent media during conflicts? It is one thing to use the dependent media to portray one’s participation in conflict in a slanted manner; it is another to change one’s military strategy in order to improve one’s image in the independent media. Do military choose the timing and the weapon for their offences depending on the expectation of how their actions will be portrayed by the independent media? A statement on June 4, 2002, by Major General Moshe Ya’alon, then the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff designate and until recently the defense minister of Israel, strongly suggests this is the case for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Ya’alon said: “This is first and foremost a war of ideology, and as such the media factor, the psychological impact of our actions, is critical. If we understand that a photograph of a tank speaks against us on CNN, we can take this into account in our decision as to whether or not to send in the tank. We schedule helicopter operations for after dark so they cannot be photographed easily. … Such considerations are already second nature to us. Officers … must understand that there are strategic media considerations. The tension between the need to destroy a particular building or to use a tank or helicopter, and the manner, in which the world perceives these actions, can affect the ultimate success or failure of the campaign. Even if we triumph in battle, we can lose in the media and consequently on the ideological plane.”
Our recent paper “Attack When the World Is Not Watching? U.S. News and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (Durante and Zhuravskaya, 2017) forthcoming in the Journal of Political Economy investigates how Israeli military changes the planning of its operations in Gaza and the West Bank in the face of coverage by US media. In particular, we test whether Israeli authorities choose the timing of their attacks strategically to coincide with other newsworthy events so as to minimize the negative impact of their actions on U.S. public opinion by avoiding U.S. media coverage of their military operations, especially when they might lead to civilian casualties.
We compile a list of fully exogenous events from forward-looking political and sports calendars in the U.S. between 2001 and 2011 and verify which of these events actually dominate US TV news, leaving little or no time to coverage of other events. Then, we compare the timing of these events to the timing of Israeli attacks on a daily basis.
We also use another, more continuous measure of whether the U.S. media and the public are distracted by other important events, namely the length of top three non-conflict-related news stories during evening news on three U.S. TV networks, where the evening newscasts are limited to 30 minutes, namely ABC, CBS, and NBC. As Eisensee and Stromberg (2007) point out, due to the competition between networks for audience, we can measure the importance of newsworthy events featured on the evening broadcasts because more important stories appear before less important stories, and they are longer.
Timing of Israeli attacks and their coverage in US media
We find that both the incidence and the severity of Israeli attacks increased sharply when U.S. news were dominated by other events, such as US primaries and caucuses, general elections, and Presidential inaugurations. The probability that Israel carried out an attack against Palestinians rose to 53.2% one day before these important U.S. events from 38.7% on days that did not coincide with these events (over our observation period of 11 years, which includes heavy fighting during the Second Intifada). Figure 1 illustrates this finding. Attacks which coincide with the major political and sports events are also more deadly; as a consequence, the number of victims of Israeli attacks per day is 1.51 times higher during the days that coincide with major political and sports events compared to days that do not coincide with major events.
Figure 1. IDF attacks and exogenous predictable newsworthy events in the U.S.
Using another measure, the length of top three non-conflict-related news stories during evening news on three U.S. TV networks, we also find that Israeli attacks are significantly more likely to occur and are more deadly when top three non-conflict-related news are longer on the following day.
Does it matter which military operation?
As some military operations are more costly to postpone than others, one should expect that only attacks that are less costly to more be strategically timed to other important events. This is exactly what we find: the timing of special targeted-killing operations, which are considered as extremely urgent by IDF, is not related to U.S. news cycle. In addition, one should expect military operations to be timed to other newsworthy events only when they are likely to generate negative publicity. As negative publicity about the conflict is mainly associated with civilian casualties, and civilian casualties are more likely when the operations are executed with heavy weapons, we find that the relationship between occurrence and severity of Israeli attacks and U.S. newsworthy events on the following day holds only for operations that involve the use of heavy weapons. We also check that the attacks are only timed to predictable newsworthy events.
Why tomorrow’s coverage matters more?
Israeli attacks get news coverage in U.S. media both on the day of the attack and one day later. Why, then, Israel times its attacks to news pressure on the following day rather than on the same day? To answer this question, we analyzed the content of news broadcasts and found that the type of coverage of Israeli attacks differs substantially between same-day and next-day reports. While the same-day and next-day news stories are equally likely to report information on the number of victims, news stories that appear on the day after the attack are much more likely to present personal stories of civilian victims and include interviews with their relatives or friends. Furthermore, next-day coverage is significantly more likely to include emotionally charged visuals of burial processions and scenes of mourning. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is both easier and safer for a foreign journalist to get details of the story on the next day; and that the next day affords an opportunity to produce emotionally charged videos of funerals. Figure 2 illustrates these findings.
Figure 2. Comparison of the content of news casts about attacks that aired on the same day as an attack and on the day following the attack.
Since people react more strongly to personal stories than to statistics and facts, and since information transmitted only through words is less likely to be retained than information accompanied by images, it is not surprising that Israel times its attacks to predictable international newsworthy events expected on the following day, as the next-day news stories are more damaging to Israel’s public image.
These results have broader implications. Policy makers in other policy domains and other countries may also strategically manipulate the timing of their unpopular actions to coincide with other important events that distract the mass media and the public. Examples of unpopular policies characterized by suspicious timing abound: Silvio Berlusconi’s government passed an emergency decree that freed hundreds of corrupt politicians on July 13, 1994, the day Italy qualified for the FIFA World Cup final. Russian troops stormed into Georgia on August 8, 2008, the opening day of the Beijing Summer Olympics. Political spin-doctors often release potentially harmful information in tandem with other important events. This is exemplified by a notorious statement from the former UK Labour Party’s spin doctor, Jo Moore, who, in a leaked memo sent to her superiors on the afternoon of 9/11, said that it was “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury” (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1358985/Sept-11-a-good-day-to-bury-bad-news.html (accessed on July 7, 2015) and http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/oct/10/uk.Whitehall (accessed on July 7, 2015)).
Overall, policy makers’ strategic behavior may undermine the effectiveness of mass media as a watchdog, thus reducing citizens’ ability to keep public officials accountable
- Durante, Ruben; and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, 2017. “Attack When the World Is Not Watching? U.S. News and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming)
- Eisensee, Thomas; and David Stromberg, 2007. “News Droughts, News Floods, and U.S. Disaster Relief,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 05, 122 (2), 693–728.
- Nevo, Baruch; and Shur Yael, 2003. The IDF and the press during hostilities, Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Democracy Institute, pp. 84-85, available at http://en.idi.org.il/media/1431355/IDFPress.pdf, accessed on May 18, 2016.
- Yanagizawa-Drott, David, 2014. “Propaganda and Conflict: Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 129(4), pp.1947-1994.