Quick Geography Lesson For NBC News

[ Posted Tuesday, June 18th, 2013 – 15:12 UTC ]

Call me biased, I suppose. Biased against ignorance, perhaps. To be less snarky, biased in favor of geography and Irish people. I am so biased in favor of Irish people, in fact, that I married one. So I guess I'm not the best neutral observer. But having fully admitted that, I still feel duty-bound to point out how last night's NBC News broadcast made a basic and truly ignorant geographical mistake, as anchor Brian Wilson read the lead-in to a story on President Obama's overseas conference with the Gang of Eight (no, not that Gang of Eight... meant to say "the G-8," sorry...) over in Northern Ireland.

As is their wont, because the story dealt with another part of the world, NBC News did the "zoomey map" thing to educate Americans just where the heck they were talking about. It started by showing a goodly chunk of the planet, centered on Western Europe:

All fine and good. OK, that's Europe. Got it. Where are we zooming to today? Well, as we fly downward into a more-detailed map, we see a country "light up" into bright green:

But, um, wait a minute... the zooming then finishes, and helpful labels are added:

D'oh! Or, as the kids say today: "Epic fail, BriWi!"

As you can see -- by the text provided right there on NBC's own map -- what is lit up is "Ireland" which is right next to "Northern Ireland" (which is not highlighted). Northern Ireland is where the president actually was, though, and what the story was about. The equivalent (to put this shoe on the other foot for a moment) would be a television station in Ireland reading a story about the United States of America, while providing a map of South America to their viewers (complete with "U.S.A." off on the edge of the map). Yep, it's that bad.

What truly makes this fail epic is the label. If they had provided the map without the yellow text ("Northern Ireland" and "Wales"), then it would have been more forgivable. If left unlabeled, then some underpaid intern back in the video effects department picked the wrong country, hey, worse things have happened. But it's right there on the map what a huge mistake this is. Which means NBC News -- the entire organization, I don't mean to pick on Brian Williams alone -- needs a basic geography lesson before they attempt providing factual information to their viewers about this part of the world in the future. Either that, or some editors or producers who actually read what they're presenting, maybe that would help. Sigh.

Because of their obvious lack of geographical knowledge, here's a basic lesson in geography for NBC News:

There are two large islands sometimes referred to as the "British Isles" (by the British, mostly) north of the coastline of Western Europe, and also north of the English Channel. The island to the east is known as Great Britain. The island to the west (across the Irish Sea) is known as Ireland, or (more properly) "Eire."

Here's the first part which confuses most Americans: the terms England, Britain, and the U.K. are not interchangeable. They each mean something different, and something specific.

England is a country. So are Wales and Scotland. These three share the island of Great Britain (or just "Britain" sometimes). Got that so far? Great Britain consists of Wales, Scotland, and England.

OK, quick quiz: If you called the island "England," is this correct?

Answer: No, it is not correct. Ask any inhabitant of Scotland or Wales -- they'll tell you (in no uncertain terms).

So, we've got the eastern island sorted out. The island of Great Britain, that is, containing the countries of England, Wales, and Scotland.

Now we turn to the western island. Because this is a quick geography lesson, we're not going to get involved with the long and difficult history of the governmental relations on either island, or between the two islands. We're just looking at the lines on the map as they exist today.

The western island contains two countries. These are two countries which are independent of each other. They are, properly, the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland. The island as a whole is "Ireland."

Now here's where it gets tricky, because all three of those contain the same word. So pay attention, class. Chuck Todd and Brian Williams, please stop messing around in the back row and maybe you'll learn something today, gentlemen.

To begin with, "Northern Ireland" is not like saying "Northern California." Northern California is a region that has achieved capital-letter status (unlike, say, "northern Pennsylvania" or "northern Wisconsin"). It is a region whose name has become widely used similar to, for instance, the Texas Panhandle or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But Northern California is not a state. It has no real boundary or legislative independence. It is merely a region.

"Northern Ireland" is a lot closer, to continue our U.S. analogy, to saying "North Carolina" or "West Virginia." We have five states with such directional words as part of their official names, in fact. Concentrating on northern and southern examples, we have: North Carolina, South Carolina, North Dakota, and South Dakota. These are all independent states, with distinct borders and their own state governments and flags and the whole nine yards.

Just like Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is a country. It is not merely a region, it is a legal entity. Now, it would have helped out if the southern part of the island had chosen "Southern Ireland" as its official name, but again, we're getting dangerously close to politics here, so let's just accept that this isn't what happened, shall we? While it is true that the Republic of Ireland is comprised of southern Ireland, there is no capital "S" in that sentence. To return to our American similarities, it is like West Virginia and Virginia -- which did not become "East Virginia" when the division took place. There is Northern Ireland and then there is the Republic of Ireland -- or, more simply, "and then there is Ireland."

This is what makes things truly complicated -- the fact that most Americans use the name of the island interchangeably with the Republic of Ireland. For both, "Ireland" is acceptable for most purposes. But this tends to get conflated in people's minds. Which leads to the erroneous thinking that if [the Republic of] Ireland is most of [the island of] Ireland, then "Northern" Ireland must be akin to "Northern California."

It's not. What it is akin to is saying "the Dakotas" or "the Carolinas," and then separating them into North and South.

OK, we're almost done. Quick quiz: If I say just "Ireland" I could be intelligently talking about which two of the following three: (1) the Republic of Ireland, (2) the island of Ireland, (3) Northern Ireland. The answer, of course, is numbers (1) and (2) -- but not (3). Which is admittedly why it's confusing. The flip side to this is: "Northern Ireland" cannot be used in place of either "Ireland" or "the Republic of Ireland" because it is just flat-out wrong to do so.

Our final geographic fun fact concerns Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is added to Great Britain to form the United Kingdom.

So, to review: England is a country. Wales is a country. Scotland is a country. Northern Ireland is a country. The Republic of Ireland is a country. Three of these countries (England, Wales, Scotland) have a shared governmental history which continues in some form to this day, and hence form one island known as Great Britain. Add to Great Britain a fourth country in alliance (Northern Ireland) and you get the United Kingdom, or "U.K." Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland form the island of Eire, or just "Ireland."

Here's the key to that last sentence -- again, without getting into the long sordid historical aspects -- the Republic of Ireland is absolutely independent of England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland. It is not part of any alliance or federation with any of the other countries on the two islands (not counting pan-European alliances). They fought for their independence and they are indeed a separate sovereign entity from everything else in the British Isles. The capital of the Republic of Ireland is Dublin. The capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast -- which is where President Obama is visiting. Which brings us to the end of our lesson -- which should have taught everyone why that NBC map was so laughably wrong.

Somebody wake up Williams and Todd in the back of the room, will you?



[Program Note: OK, folks, here is how the rest of the week is shaping up here at world headquarters. Wednesday, I am going to try to post a new column, but cannot in fact promise that this will happen. Thursday and Friday, I will line up some interesting repeat columns (I'm thinking immigration would be a good subject). There is an outside chance that I'll be blogging from the Netroots Nation conference, but just going on past experience, there is usually too much to do and not enough time to do it in, so odds are this won't actually happen. To recap: Wednesday -- new column (hopefully); Thursday and Friday -- re-runs definite, with a slight chance of new columns. But definitely no "Friday Talking Points" as there's no way I'll have the time for that. Netroots ends over the weekend, so on Monday full service will return here at the site, with new columns all next week. Thank you for your patience, and if anyone's going to Netroots, contact me now and I'll give you my contact info during the conference so we can get together at some point.]

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


4 Comments on “Quick Geography Lesson For NBC News”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    There is an outside chance that I'll be blogging from the Netroots Nation conference, but just going on past experience, there is usually too much to do and not enough time to do it in, so odds are this won't actually happen.

    I would be VERY interested to hear about the mood of NRN in light of recent events...

    How do they feel about the various scandals??

    How do they feel about boots on the ground in Syria TOP??


  2. [2] 
    db wrote:


    Don't put your foot into Irish politics. The question of Northern Ireland being separate from the Republic is a potentially sore subject.

    Though if you speak with a thick "Scarlett O'Hara" Southern accent & speak slowly, many Europeans will take pity on you as (another) dumb American & not hold it against you.

    I seem to recall the President being in Sligo, which is in the Republic, & thus makes the whole graphic make sense.

  3. [3] 
    michty6 wrote:

    Haha awesome column. It is also worth noting that Ireland is not in the G8 so there is absolutely no way that Obama could be attending a G8 summit there ;)

    (Also I believe it is starting to become the norm that Ireland = Republic of Ireland rather than the island of Ireland)

    If it makes you feel any better though, there are a large chunk of people in the UK who don't know what the difference between 'UK' and 'Great Britain' is. Although most certainly know the difference between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland...

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    db -

    Oh, I well know it. I had to bend over backwards to avoid politics while writing this. My wife's Irish, so I know this story chapter and verse...



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