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Why the Media Should Stop Talking About the “Worst Places” in the World

Why the Media Should Stop Talking About the “Worst Places” in the World

Mother Jones published a piece on Thursday with the headline, "You Thought It Was Tough Being Gay in Uganda. ‘It’s Hell in Nigeria.’"

This is just the latest example of what has become one of the media’s favorite ways to talk about the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people around the world: saying "X Country is the Worst." For proof of popularity, just Google "the worst place in the world to be gay" and click through the many pages on offer. Or consider the following taste of what’s out there:

"MAPS: The Best And Worst Places To Live if You’re Gay" (From Upworthy, just in case "you" were considering relocating to Saudi Arabia or Sudan)

"The World’s Worst Place to be Gay" (A BBC documentary on Uganda, which seems to get the "worst place" label more than any other country because of its recently enacted, and awful, anti-gay law)

This framing isn’t limited to LGBT issues, either. Plenty of outlets have labeled countries the worst for women:

"Afghanistan worst place in the world for women, but India in top five" (the Guardian, making sure you don’t get the wrong idea about India)

 "The Best and Worst Places to Be a Woman" (Buzzfeed, undoubtedly thrilled to find a way to squeeze complicated sex and gender issues into a list)

It’s time to retire with the "worst place" frame, for a host of reasons.

First, saying a country is the worst for a particular group of people assumes that pretty much everyone in that group has the same lived experiences: all gay people in Uganda, for instance, or all women in Afghanistan. Problem being, people’s circumstances, as we know, vary widely based on factors like income, education, ethnicity, and whether they live in rural or urban areas. So in countries with rampant homophobia and repressive laws, not every LGBT person endures the same type, level, or frequency of terrible things. Similarly, in countries with relatively progressive laws pertaining to LGBT rights, things can be terrible for some people; Rachel Aviv’s excellent 2012 New Yorker article on homeless LGBT youth in the Big Apple, entitled "Netherland," is a reminder of this fact.

In short, it is dehumanizing and ultimately unproductive when the media conflate people’s experiences under national banners of "good" or "bad." Conflation hides important nuances within different societies — nuances that very well could be the keys to crafting better policies pertaining to human rights and social welfare and targeting them at the people most in need.

A second problem is that the frame triggers a sort of race to the bottom, or a search for a scoop on the most terrible of terrible places. The Mother Jones headline, for instance, implies, "You’ve been reading about Uganda — but wait! Your attention is misplaced!" This instructs readers (and, depending on the outlet, policymakers as well) to look away from some injustices, in favor of others that they’re told are worse. But shouldn’t reporters (and editors) committed to shining a light on inequality and suffering be concerned about injustices everywhere? There seems to be little that is useful about telling readers to weigh abuses on the basis of borders: that the beating of gay men is somehow more odious in Nigeria than it is in Uganda — or in any other country. 

Third, in saying that a place is the worst in which to be a certain type of person, there is a not-so-subtle implication that an element of choice is involved: that, if you’re a woman, you really shouldn’t live in Afghanistan. It’s also hard to shake the weird parallels with travel guides: "best beaches," "worst hotels," "worst places to have a vagina."

Problem being, the vast majority of people on earth don’t get to choose where they live (nor are they reading this media coverage). As a result, the element of choice twists into one of separation, making readers thankful that they don’t live in one of the "worst" places, and pitying those who do. Once again, this dehumanizes and detaches; readers look at ratings and rankings and labels as things that have little to do with them. The "worst" is almost always "the other."

(There are undoubtedly other reasons the frame is bad, but these three are among the most glaring.)

To be sure, many of the articles and headlines in question draw from studies by NGOs, academic institutions, or polling organizations that seek to categorize countries based on whether governments do deplorable things like ban same-sex marriage or fail to criminalize the rape of women by their husbands. In other words, the media aren’t coming up with idea all by themselves, though they do often take complex findings — such as the size of the gender gap in different countries — and slap best/worst labels on them.

Moreover, distinguishing trends is important for any sort of policymaking and advocacy. And the media need principles and structures that help organize complex ideas in articles for readers whose time is limited and whose attention is pulled in various directions. (So as not to act above the fray, Foreign Policy has used the "worst place" frame.)

Yet this particular frame, so ubiquitous now, woefully reduces trends to shadows of their real selves. It has become an injustice in its own right: a way of telling important stories about some of the world’s biggest problems, challenges, and abuses that only renders those stories incomplete.

Saying a place is the worst is … well, the worst. So it’s time to stop.