How the Media Portrays Africa, China, and India Differently

I recently had the pleasure of listening to a fascinating presentation in my Introduction to International Relations class. The professor showed the class pictures what one family in a variety of different countries ate during the duration of a week. The pictures came from the book Hungry Planet, by Peter Menzel. Time Magazine published a series of excerpts (part one and part two) of these pictures.

It was quite interesting to see the typical weekly meal of one family in several countries, ranging from Japan to Germany. The American photo, unfortunately, was the picture-perfect stereotype of over-consuming pre-prepared food (rather than real food).

There was something else that caught my eye, however, as the presentation went on. Like many people, I looked forward to seeing the typical weekly meal of a family in China and a family in India. Here is India:

This is, needless to say, not a typical family in India. In one of the most crowded countries in the world, this Indian family is the proud owner of an entire house. It looks to be a very nice and well-maintained house as well.

Just by looking at the photo, it’s pretty clear that this Indian family is far and above better off than most Indian families. It’s not very representative of India.

Here’s China:

Again, there’s a big surprise here. This Chinese family has somehow managed the trick of having two children. The family also appears to live in a pristine apartment which is definitely not working-class.

It probably requires a lot of money or connections to have more than one child in China. That means that the family pictured here, just like the Indian family pictured, is very unrepresentative of the typical Chinese family. Both families are much wealthier than the typical citizens of their countries.

What’s the point of this?

Well, here’s a picture of a family in Chad:

This is the stereotypical “starving” African family. The food is obviously not enough for the six people in the picture.

There are two pictures of sub-Saharan African families in the entire photo set – and the other photo also fits the stereotype to a tee.

But this family is very definitely not a typical family in Chad. The family here is living in a refugee camp for Darfur refugees, called the Breidjing Camp. Most Chadians do not live in refugee camps. The family pictured here is probably in the poorest ten percent of Chad’s society. It’s not very representative of Chad.

What you may not know is that Africa’s GDP per capita is actually higher than India’s GDP per capita. There’s an argument to be made that Africans actually live better than Indians.

Yet the African family pictured is chronically short of food, while the Indian family (with their comfortable house) obviously belongs to the country’s elite. So does the Chinese family with its multiple kids.

The Point

China, India, and Africa are not nice places. There are hundreds of millions of very very poor people in all three areas.

Yet, as this picture-album perfectly shows, the portrayals of these three civilizations couldn’t be more different. The media always shows India and China as making great progress. China and India are on the path to the good life. Thus the elite families portrayed in this album.

Africa, on the other hand, is perpetually portrayed as an impoverished wasteland. Dictators, starvation, war – it’s hell. Supposedly. The impoverished Chadian and Malian families in Peter Menzel’s pictures are great examples of this theme.

What would the world be like if the media showed impoverished Indian and Chinese peasants all the time? What would the world be like if the media showed rich and wealthy Africans, rather than starving war refugees, all the time? It’s certainly possible to do. There are more than a billion poor peasants to pick in China and India. Africa has plenty of rich people. But somehow I feel that this won’t happen anytime soon.

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11 Responses to How the Media Portrays Africa, China, and India Differently

  1. SP says:

    As an Indian, I can say that the family portrayed in the India pic is not as elite family. It shows a typical middle class family, a segment that accounts for ~20% of Indian population. It is true that large part of the Indian population will not be living with these standards. However, this is by no means elite or high class.

  2. kevin ren says:

    By adding another argument, If the 1.4 billon population belongs to any other countries include USA in this planet, Which country can give the same living standard of Chinese now having? Or even close? I deeply doubt. Even not starving is not that easy.
    To this point, China is the most successful country in the world.
    Arenot we?

  3. kevin ren says:

    Hi,Guys
    I am a Chinese.I wanna tell you something.
    It is grandma,father, mother and son in the second picture. I never read that book, but as a Chinese, I am 100% sure about that.
    Second point I wiil say, the second picture of Chinese family is quite representitive. Come on, the food in front of are all sold in supermarket,Stuff in China is quite cheap and It is like every one includes what you mean working class can afford that.Also your words “pristine apartment”, in my eye, it is just a common common common unit in small or middle or large city. Rent such a unit (two single room, one master room,etc,etc, about 150 square meters in total) in small to middle sized city in China cost you only less than 2000 US dollars PER YEAR. That is $40 per week.

    By the way, I am always suprised on misleading ideas to China from people in English countries and always wondering why.

  4. Antonio says:

    This is so true. The western media always shows China and India in a good light even though their are many poor Chinese and Indians. Open sewers in India is not rare. So are mud huts and street children. Many Chinese have to come to The U.K because there country cannot cope with them, they face poverty if they stay. Why the bias I don’t know?. The western media even try’s to blame Africa for the high world population, even though China and Indias huge populations are much more significant.

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  6. Ed says:

    This is actually one of your better posts. I’ve noticed that the attack in the first comment doesn’t address a single one of the points you actually made.

  7. lwatkins says:

    I stumbled on your blog and must comment on this post as I have the book you’re talking about and as most of your points are wrong, I’ll flip through and help you out a bit as it doesn’t look like you’ve read it. (Maybe you were just commenting stream-of-consciousness-style on what you think is going on in the the photos, but your effort seems kind of shoddy.) It says in the first chapter that the portraits weren’t meant to represent the whole country—there’s a discussion about that. As for that Chinese family— you seem to be referring to the boy and his MOTHER. The caption says that it’s a picture of the dad, mom, son, and a grandmother (not a brother and sister). Also, the Chad story in the book explains what the food is, and what it’s based on, and that it’s in a refugee camp: UNaid = enough calories to survive or better. So the point you make isn’t valid (Also, the books says that the family is a Sudanese family living in a refugee camp in Chad so they aren’t from Chad as you say they are). Also, where did you get the data that Chad has a higher GDP per capita than India? That’s incorrect. There are issues with your other points as well but I need to move on. Although, I’d love to know, if you got just about everything wrong in this post just how many of your other blog posts are wrong?

    • inoljt says:

      Chinese family – I didn´t see anything in the Times site about what you claim. The family certainly looks to be standing in the classic mother-father-two children style.

      Chad – The point is the fact that the author decided to show a Chadian-Sudanese family in a refugee camp rather than, say, in a big rich house. You´re right about Chad´s GDP per capita; I actually meant Africa.

  8. brainloess says:

    Thanks for this post. My mom bought this book when I was about 15 and I remember spending hours pouring over the photos and statistics on each page. While I still appreciate the how the book helped spark my interest in food politics, your comments have brought to light some important shortcomings (to say the least) that I’m now shocked I didn’t notice in the first place. And as someone who will soon be traveling to India for four months to study politics and sustainable development, and possibly conducting research on food and diet, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the discrepancy between the way India is often portrayed in mainstream American media and the reality experienced by a majority of Indians. (Also, if you’re at all interested in reading about my travels/research, I’ll be writing about them in my blog: http://brainloess.wordpress.com/)

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