Western Media and the First Image Conundrum

Western Media and the First Image Conundrum

By Elizabeth Johnson; Image by BBVA

Mainstream media coverage of geopolitical events has become increasingly focused on particular leaders. To be clear, this is in reference to mass-consumption media in the United States, such as CNN, Fox News, late night television, Apple News, The New York Times, or, frankly, Facebook and Twitter. A state’s actions are almost entirely reduced to the preferences of its particular leader on a regular basis in these mediums. Furthermore, much more coverage has been given to qualities such as personality and appearance of relevant individuals. Admittedly, some of this coverage makes sense, especially when it comes to the highly centralized regimes of Putin and Xi. Yet the focus on individuals often overshadows other context contributing to newsworthy events, and often the events themselves.

Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war is reduced to the whims of Putin. Zelensky has been lauded as an endearing hero in some cases, and in other cases mocked for his attire. Coverage of China’s Covid policies are all about Xi. US Covid policies are attributed to Dr. Fauci before the CDC or WHO. Think pieces, Twitter threads, and late night monologues are devoted to Liz Truss’ competition with a head of lettuce above her efforts to save the British economy. Biden’s foreign policy achievements and failures abroad are overshadowed by fist bumps with Mohammed bin Salman. Discourse over Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup devolved into ridicule of the FIFA president’s claims he was a gay, African, red-headed migrant worker.

Not only was former President Trump a gift to this type of media narrative, his rise to political power coincides with the shift in focus toward individuals. Similarly, in the academia realm, Trump was a renaissance of Waltz’s first image.

In 1959, Kenneth Waltz submitted to the study of conflict three levels of analysis to understand why wars happen. The systemic level of analysis, or the third image, is based on a system of anarchy with no overarching enforcer. States existing within this system are all in pursuit of survival, and wars start because there is no one to stop them. The state level of analysis, or the second image, suggests that the particular characteristics and institutions of a state make it more or less likely to be involved in conflict. Finally, the individual level of analysis, or the first image, gives weight to the nature of individuals, most often state leaders, who may be volatile, reactionary, or peaceful.

Most work in Political Science and International Relations studies the second and third images. The first image has historically been dismissed as ultimately inconsequential to changes in the international system. For instance, Political Scientist Frank Harvey claims that even if Al Gore were elected in 2000, he would also have invaded Iraq. The validity of the first image requires proving that certain events would not have happened if not for the involvement of one unique individual. This is difficult to prove, especially with the Political Science tools that are not equipped to assess individual preferences. For the most part, the first image has been dismissed as largely irrelevant to international conflicts and instead focus has shifted to states, institutions, and systems.

With the election of Trump, some have rethought this dismissal. Scholars have reopened inquiries into the first level of analysis given his unprecedented actions and unique character from past US presidents. There is no certain answer yet to the validity of the first image with the added case of Trump. Answering this question will require further thought and a shift in focus away from the second and third levels of analysis that scholars are preoccupied with.

The media, though, seems taken by Waltz’s first image. Perhaps it became a habit during the Trump administration, when it was instinctual for scholars and laymen alike to attribute political changes to Trump’s personality. Does the media focus on Trump, Putin, and Xi reflect the reality that the first image is a valuable framework to understand international relations?

I would argue that the disposition and preferences of individuals in positions of power do matter, but still exist within a system that often constrains them. Therefore, the media is not entirely misguided in employing the first image analysis when reporting. Especially when it comes to particularly volatile and powerful leaders, the individual level of analysis can explain a lot, and certainly has the more entertaining elements that supply needed viewers and readers.

That said, we should be cautious not to ignore structural forces, historical context, or more consequential outcomes when reporting on geopolitical events. Including an individual level of analysis can be appropriate, but reducing the Russia-Ukraine war to Putin and Zelensky oversimplifies the causes of the war and does an injustice to its material effects of the war such as family separation, displacement, and death.

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