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Cucumber days

August 27, 2010

In the Netherlands (and probably elsewhere) they call the summer months for media cucumber days.

This is when there’s such a lack of news that writing stories about cucumbers (i.e. their harvest) comes very possible. Which is obviously a scary thought.

That’s not to say there aren’t things going on in the world which should make news, but as we’ve seen if there’s nothing ‘local’, with celebrity, then cucumbers are the closest thing to home.

But this does give some opportunity for other stories, such as that of the DRC crisis, and it has been good to see the Guardian recently report on what’s going on there (which for them is three stories in 2010, zero in 2009…)

Read “Fertile land the prize that could reignite ethnic conflict in DR Congo”

It’s quite a simple overview but does hone in on a specific tension, and in my humble opinion at least tries to delve deeper into the issue.

ADDITION: BBC today also leads with a Congo story: UN draft report calls DR Congo crimes genocide

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News About News

July 27, 2009

Alisa Miller gives a nice short overview of the world view in the eyes of US news.

(4m30s)

Economy driving the Conflict, & Hiding the DR Congo Conflict

July 21, 2009

It’s been a while since anything was written here, but the thesis is complete and it’s time to think about how to develop ideas regarding media response to DR Congo. In the coming days, or weeks, I’ll be explaining some of my results, which began to demonstrate what restraints there are upon the foreign correspondents.

To my surprise, today there was a front page (on the internet at least) story on the Guardian website, titled “British firms linked to Congo’s illicit mineral trade”.  This isn’t really news to anyone who would spend 2 minutes reading about what’s going on in the DRC – where do you think coltan is heading to if not the Western or Chinese markets?

What this article instantly reveals is the bias towards the news’ own nation; if this was ‘Malaysian firms’, or perhaps even ‘American firms’, this would not be front page.  It wouldn’t be big enough news.  In fact, I get the feeling it must be a slow news day for this article to head the website.

The interesting thing is that economics really are the driving force behind this conflict.  And, by the same token, economics are restraining decent reporting of the conflict.  I’ll explain in more details in the coming days but I was recently told this by a reporter based in West Africa (I won’t reveal him):

I was told by the editors: if I have to choose between the latest inflation figures in the West, and a dozen deaths somewhere, I’d have to go with the inflation figures.

So hitting the economic theme of the conflict is probably the only way it’ll make the news. Sad but true.

Bourdieu on Journalism, and how the DR Congo can be helped

April 17, 2009

Over the last few of months I’ve been mulling almost constantly over the question:

“How can 900 people be massacred over the Christmas period in DR Congo and hardly a murmur comes out of the press?”

Obviously, at first one would instantly point a finger at the press.  They should have the role as watchdogs upon society, reporting anything that goes unjust.  If they do not, they fail society.  DR Congo is not in the limelight, so is not receiving the support it deserves.

Since that initial reaction, I began to consider why the press would behave this way, because journalists are part of that very society – are they any different to the audience themselves?  Of course, economic pressures and political pressures influence the journalist:

“The journalist is an uneasy awkward figure, capable of good as well as bad, who has to come to terms with the political and economic constraints that weigh on him, rendering his position unstable and uncomfortable.”
(Patrick Champagne)

But what are the ideological implications? What is that uneasy link between the audience and the journalist? This has led me to consider Bourdieu’s somewhat complex views on the field of journalism:

“To understand a product like L’Express and le Nouvel Observateur there is little point in studying the target readership…Ultimately the readers of L’Express may be to the readers of Le Nouvel Observateur what the journalists of Le Nouvel Observateur are to the journalists of L’Express.”
(Pierre Bourdieu)

It’s quite a study, but something that opens new avenues for consideration.  The journalist inhabits the same field as the reader.  The reader, in the position of the journalist, would behave in exactly the same manner.  For example, influences such as a current contract status could act as a kind of censorship.  As Bourdieu puts it, precarity of employment is a loss of liberty.  Economic constraints thus act as a form of censorship.  Most of us understand this feeling.

So the independence of the journalist is then, perhaps, the key.  If economic, political and social pressures are not present; the autonomous journalist can behave as our ideal journalist, defending the rights of those in places like the DR Congo.  Or would they?

This would mean the journalist, who once lived alongside the reader in the same field, now move away, becomes detached, and merely impose their own values on everyone else.  Not the values of the audience.  Professor Rodney Benson wonders if an autonomous journalist is a good thing:

‘‘This raises the possibility that the ‘news judgement’ of a corps of media professionals who are beyond the influence of state and market is not necessarily a prize one should want for the best interest of a democratic society.”

So, where does that leave us?  It’s a tough question for sure, and I must say it’s giving me some headaches.  What I think, and I believe Bourdieu would agree to some extent, is that it is up to mass-society as a whole to shift.  It means, as I said previously, that we must consume news and media differently, we must demand different standards from the media institutions.

“If journalism is sufficiently decentralized and varied in the viewpoints it presents; if journalists are recruited from different walks of life and promote different points of view; if journalism is institutionally self-critical in ways that guarantee variety and change in the news; if, in a word, journalism is a pluralistic institution, then journalistic autonomy may be good not only for journalists, who of course appreciate the freedom to write what they please, but good for a democratic society.”
(Rodney Benson)

How? I can only think we need to teach the youth to use the media in the correct fashion.  I saw only the other day some school children in the UK make Prime Minister candidate David Cameron tremor with fear with their inquisitive, open and insightful questions.  They know how media should behave, and we should make sure they don’t forget.

Because ultimately we, society as a whole, aren’t giving the DR Congo the support it deserves.

What do you think?

The Audience’s Blind Spot on the Dark Heart

March 30, 2009

I groaned again today when I read the headline ‘Casting a Sliver of Light on the Heart of Darkness’ in the NY Times.   The article itself is quite ok, but I felt let down  by the constant references to ‘Heart of Darkness’, as I first commented on some time ago (and later felt obliged to defend Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ sometime more recently).

As much as I’d love to heap further blame on journalists, I have been offering a lot of consideration to what the position of the journalist actually is.  As Jack Fuller puts it, whose perception of reality is the journalist attempting to be objective about?’

“Journalism is not to be blamed for this, no more than a cow is to be blamed for not being a horse.”

News values are the basis by which a journalist selects an event and chooses to report it.  These values will be most durable if the audience support and uphold them – the old saying goes that the audience gets the news they deserve.

But by the same token, the reporters must make the news compelling enough for reader.   However, news is dominated, naturally, by bias.

As Fuller suggests, there’s a bias of immediacy: most reports need to be a recent event, and background to a story is often shunned, leaving the detail hollow. There is a bias of a matter of geography: the young girl kidnapped near your town will make more prominant news, more often than not, than the bus load of passengers murdered 2000 miles away.

The most telling bias is the favour of information the audience finds interesting.  Journalists want to give the audience what the audience knows they enjoy, often focusing on negativity.

The reference to the Western novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ acts as a carrier of certainty into an unknown field.  Without this, the story is likely to be ignored.  The audience’s blind spot therefore becomes a blind spot in the news.

Asymmetrical media coverage of the conflict in DR Congo

March 28, 2009

Further to my recent post about what influences media, this is a very good short programme on the Western media’s generally lazy reporting of the DR Congo conflict, and how rebel soldiers can exploit this.

(12 min)

In the News Divide, we turn our attention to a subject that has been eclipsed in recent weeks and months by the US presidential election and the global banking meltdown: the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite being branded as ‘Africa’s world war,’ a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ and the human exodus of refugees that it has precipitated, the headlines in the Western media have been slow to emerge. We look at the disproportionate amount of airtime that General Laurent Nkunda and his band of rebels are enjoying thanks to their comparatively sophisticated public relations machine and how the media are largely buying into their narrative.

The Sanitisation of Images & Worship of Certainty in Media

March 26, 2009

Rob, a university colleague of mine, has been generous enough to speak about a subject I’m very interested in, and something he’s focusing on for his thesis.  He studies social theory. Doesn’t twitter.

Please read, and think about, his wise observations:

Like Simon, I’m a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, and like Simon the issue of conflicts and how they are represented has always been of interest to me. However unlike Simon, I study principally theory at the University, leaving me the type of person you would go to extreme lengths to avoid at social gatherings, including exposing yourself to the natterings of inane creatures who believe that Next Top Model is of critical importance to the world.

However, keeping at the forefront of my mind the mantra: “I must not bore you”, I will try to contribute a little to the blog on the issue of the representation of conflict in the media.

There have been several academic articles which have sought to analyse how war has been represented in the media via images. The findings of one “Picturing the Gulf War: Constructing an Image of War in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report”, highlights many of the concerns raised by others.

However for the point of this blog, we’ll stick with one issue raised: that the consequences of conflict are very rarely shown in the media, and if they are, they are sanitised to such a degree that the ethical and moral implications for the audience are lost.

To underline how insulated Western audiences are from the realities of atrocity, one need only look to the coverage of the bombings in Madrid.

This sanitisation of the consequences of violence is particularly dangerous, because it removes the moment of horror for the audience, in which the individual is left to reflect on the event, to ask questions. In the case above, the moment of being confronted with the bloodied limb of a passenger, which disturbs the viewer because it challenges his or her view of bodily integrity, creates a space, a moment, for critical thought.

However in the case of the Times, Telegraph and I would argue the Guardian such a moment is not provided by the image. This is a particular consequence the public should not see. Instead we are meant to believe from this image that only inanimate objects (the train in the background) are ripped apart in a bombing, animate objects remain whole, dead of course, but that doesn’t disturb us really, not like a limb ripped from a human being would. When that shock moment is lost, the image should be seen as worthless. It has failed in it primary task to show what the written word cannot convey – horror.

(I’m repeating my mantra at double-speed now, because I feel some theory is needed here to reiterate my point.)

When images of atrocity are managed/censored/selected, whatever word you may wish to use, the reality of the atrocity is lost, and the image cows down to the accompanying news report that creates the narrative of the event.

Cees Hamelink, who Simon has referred to before, noted in an interview in 2007, that the media are forever in ‘worship of certainty’. That is to say, that they will never stand before us and admit that they don’t know. Imagine a news reporter admitting “I don’t know who’s responsible for this” or even, “I don’t know why this happened”. They must be certain, because if they’re not, they create a situation in which we are left to ask ourselves the hard questions: Who is responsible for this?  And why did they do this? To create such an opening for reflection would undermine the position of the news media as all knowing, and I would suggest, make us more questioning of the possibility that we have some responsibility in the atrocity.

The censorship of images that sanitise (read depoliticise) the reality of atrocity, as well as the media’s fear of leaving an opening for critical space by admitting that they don’t know, leaves a public insulated from the consequences of atrocity and denies that they may be responsible in part.

I’ll finish on recalling the exact moment I lost faith in Barack Obama, because it encapsulates what I’m rambling on about in this piece. Obama said in his inauguration speech that “We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense”. Now, I have always believed that you have to be humble in the face of experience, that when you are confronted with an event that challenges your worldview, that perhaps even criticises your attitudes and beliefs, you should not try to remain the person you were before, to deny the event, but instead to commit to it, reflect upon it and ask questions.

When we are confronted with some little opening in the media’s narrative of how the world functions, as in the case above and the limb of some unfortunate passenger, we must not turn away from it. We cannot deny we saw it, and we should not avoid asking the questions that such an image raises.

When Obama writes that “We will not apologize for our way of life” he presupposes that we in fact understand the costs involved in our way of life. I would argue that we do not, that in fact we work hard, as a society, to avoid being confronted with the consequences of our “way of life”. We in fact should always be ready to apologise for our way of life when it is shown to bring misery to others, and we should never simply run to its defence without first thinking about what it is we are committing ourselves to.

Thank you Rob.