November 3, 2008

The above illustration depicts the number of articles devoted by the New York Times to a given country since 2000, compiled by the gang at Gene Expression.

  The methodology is a bit complicated but the short version is:

The results . . . are standardized by dividing by the number of articles for the entire period. To ensure that the graphing algorithm would pick up order-of-magnitude differences, I multiplied the fractions -- which ranged in order from 10^(-5) to 0.1 -- by 10^5, so that they range in order from 1 to 10,000. Some countries I had to estimate rather than get the exact number, since their names are shared with other things, like Turkey (see Note).

More interesting, however, is the interpretation:

The first thing you notice is a few big blobs and lots of tiny blobs, in accord with a Power Law.


How do we infer the level of insanity in our foreign policy implied by these data? Looking at the countries from greatest to least emphasis, the low-ranking ones make sense -- they belong to the parts of the world you've never heard of, and will not have reason to hear about within your lifetime, such as Tuvalu and Bhutan.

But there are some funny ones at the top. For example, it takes the top 9 to discover all 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council. The remainder of the top 9 are Germany and Japan -- which at least are G8 countries -- but also Iraq and Israel. Speaking of the G8, it takes the top 12 to discover them, which adds another lesser country to this elite list -- Mexico (China is not G8 but is still important). Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan also rank pretty high.

This is a perfectly rational outcome -- our foreign policy may obsess over these places, but by placing criteria on them like "permanent member of UN Security Council" or "member of G8," we can see which ones don't deserve the attention. They represent the parts of the world, like Iraq, where we're wasting a bunch of money to squat over an over-glorified sandbox, hoping that our colonial piss will transform it into a lush oasis. Or they're the places, like Mexico, where we're importing a large illiterate peasant underclass from. This seems like a useful way to change our foreign policy: see who we're obsessed with, but who don't really matter, and cut them loose (relatively speaking).

The last bit gets rather complicated, frankly.  One could certainly make the case that Israel occupies a disproportionately large space in both the news pages of the NYT and America's foreign policy.  It's rather obviously less important on a whole variety of axes than Canada, which gets slightly less coverage.  Then again, there's less in the way of "news" about Canada which is not, after all, in a permanent state of seige from an irredentist group.

On the other hand, it's hard to argue that Spain deserves as much attention as India or that Cuba deserves more than Saudi Arabia, which seems to be the case when eyeballing the bubbles.

What's also interesting is the cyclical nature of news coverage.  Recall how much coverage Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia were garnering ten to fifteen years ago.  None of them even merits a labeled bubble for the last eight years.

Via Tyler Cowen.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Coucil.