‘The media brings in light’: International students talk press freedom, bias, following news from home countries

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By Mila Murray

EAST LANSING, Mich. — As neuroscience senior Ece Erder, 21, of Istanbul, Turkey, closely followed the worldwide news coverage of her city’s mayoral election this past summer, she thought: “Is this really about to happen?”

The election, which Vox Media reported “delivered a big victory for Turkey’s democracy,” shocked the nation as opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu was elected for the second time in a row. 

For Erder, who travels to Chicago to vote in Turkey’s elections, keeping up with what’s happening back at home is important. 

Last year, 6,260 international students from 140 countries were enrolled at Michigan State University, according to the Office for International Students and Scholars’ annual statistical report. Though Erder is technically not an international student, she and her family moved to the U.S. right before she started college. 

“Personally, I know what side of the news I stand by, and I know what side of the news I don’t care about,” Erder said. “And in Turkey, it’s pretty polarized.”

CNN Turk and Cumhuriyet — a daily newspaper headquartered in Istanbul — are news outlets Erder said she turns to the most. Although she’s aware they align more with her views than other publications, she said CNN Turk and Cumhuriyet tend to be perceived as more credible and less biased than other Turkish media, which are largely controlled by the government.. 

“Whatever [the news] is, it is,” Erder said. “I want to hear what’s real, even if it’s not going to make me happy.” 

Economics senior Zinan Zhang, 22, of Nantong, China, said news perspectives also can vary in her home country. 

“It will happen,” Zhang said. “It is normal because people have different views. Sometimes, I can read something about one side on the website, but a different side on WeChat.” 

Zhang prefers to use social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo — a Chinese microblogging website — to keep up with what’s happening back at home. She also frequents finance.ifeng.com, a source for financial and business news. 

“Nantong is a very small town in China, and I think the environment is good. So we don’t have a lot of big things these days,” Zhang said. “Because my major is economics, I always focus on finance and economics, like the U.S. and China trade war. Stories like this.” 

Recently, Erder has been following news related to the multiple wars Turkey is involved in, as well as issues the eastern part of the country is dealing with, including immigration and terrorism. 

“I grew up on the western side of the country, which is more modernized and touristic. The eastern side is more traditional, but my mom’s side is completely from there, so I visit a lot,” Erder said. “So that type of news — I know my parents or my family will be affected in some type of way.” 

When she moved to the U.S. four years ago, the biggest difference she noticed about news media was not in how Turkey and the U.S. report national news, but in how citizens reacted to it. 

“I recognized that some people are just willing to not be a part of the conversation at all,” Erder said. “They think, ‘This doesn’t touch me, this is not my concern, I’m okay.’  In Turkey, you don’t have that option. Whatever happens in the east side affects the west side and affects the north and the south.” 

Though Erder and Zhang don’t see major differences in how the U.S. and their home countries cover issues and events, international relations senior Luyando Katenda, 23, of Lusaka, Zambia, does. 

“They criticize the government back home too, but they’re more likely to face backlash,” Katenda said. “They have to be much more wary of their safety than over here. The freedom after expression isn’t guaranteed, and that’s a striking difference.” 

In addition to an increase in violence against Zambian journalists, Katenda said there’s been an increase in private media institutions in his home country — Diamond TV being a popular one he follows. 

“Public radio or TV stations that are owned by the government have a wider reach, so you find that people in rural areas often listen to news that is pro-government,” Katenda said. “But now, there’s more social media influence, so we can easily access news that is divergent.” 

Like Zhang, Katenda browses social media — especially Facebook — to keep up with what’s happening back at home, as well as BBC News. However, he said most of the people in his community in Lusaka get their news from the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, or ZNBC.

“BBC is a credible source because of them being international,” Katenda said. “But I do try to diversify the kind of news I follow to get a wider range.” 

Zhang also reads English-language news outlets, specifically the Economist.

“Because they’re from different countries, they have different views about things. And for me, I can see different views and I can know the whole thing, not just from one side,” Zhang said. 

Erder, who is planning to stay in the U.S. for medical school, says heavy bias in American news outlets is a problem.  

“This is my fourth year and I’m a resident, I’m going to live here. I don’t think I am able to find a news channel or a newspaper where I’m like, ‘Yeah this is in the middle ground, I feel like I can figure out what’s going on,’” Erder said. “But what’s going on, really? I need some more information because I didn’t grow up here.” 

Though national news outlets can be biased and challenging the status quo in his home country is difficult, Katenda said more access to information is changing that. 

“The media brings in light, being the watchdog or guardian of human rights,” he said. “It’s a key component in our country too, but I also feel like they have lots of challenges.” 

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