One reason frequently given for the marginalization of certain conflicts by the media is that the people simply don’t want to know about them. Having settled down in front of their TV screens to eat their dinner in the evening, the last thing people want to see are distressing and depressing images of death and suffering from conflict in distant lands that can’t be easily comprehended and judged in the 90 seconds allocated for the broadcast.
From the perspective of the media, although evoking a little outrage at injustices in the world from time to time can work (in terms of ratings), ‘the people’ generally want to be entertained and assured that everything in the world around them is alright. Too much complexity and difficulty in distinguishing the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’ are seen as turn-offs, and too great a dosage of stories that once generated interest apparently leads to so-called ‘compassion fatigue’.
All of this seems to absolve the media from the responsibility of reporting on the issues in question. If the people are not interested in a particular issue, who are they to force it on them? After all, is it not their job to chase consumer interest – to give the people what they want? Having just spent a little time in Rwanda, and with next month marking the 15th anniversary of the genocide in that country, it seemed time to revisit the issue. The lessons (of the response) are by no means out of date.
The genocide and its aftermath saw two very different responses by the media. The Western media tended to shy away from reporting on the genocide itself. These were black Africans killing black Africans. The conflict was portrayed as inexplicable and ‘chaotic’ – it was primitive ‘tribal’ bloodletting (killing people with bullets and cruise missiles is much more civilized than killing with machetes). People with whiter complexions were dying in Bosnia, and O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder in California. Perhaps the only reason Rwanda received any significant coverage was that Western reporters could stop by on their way back from covering the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa – similar massacres resulting in at least 200,000 deaths in neighbouring Burundi the year before had generated almost no coverage at all. Admittedly, conditions for reporters on the ground were highly dangerous (not that that has ever stopped coverage of Iraq), and developments in the situation were rapid and difficult to quickly grasp, but this is not enough to explain the relatively low levels of coverage.
Two to three months after the genocide began, on the other hand, when a mix of Hutu civilians fearing revenge attacks and the perpetrators of the genocide fled together into neighbouring Zaire in massive numbers and cholera began to rapidly spread in the refugee camps established there, media interest was suddenly sparked and emotive something-must-be-done type of coverage came thick and fast. Why did sudden humanitarian interest rise in response to this particular tragedy when it had been lacking just two months earlier?
Lindsey Hilsum (one of the few Western journalists on the ground at the time) tells us that the decision to cover the cholera crisis was “much, much easier” than that for the genocide:
“It was safe – neither the journalists nor the expensive satellite equipment were at risk. It was accessible – the Red Cross would fly you direct from Nairobi. The story made sense – refugees fleeing war, being looked after by aid workers. And, for TV, the visual images were very strong but not so offensive that you could not show them”
(Lindsey Hilsum, ‘Reporting Rwanda: the Media and the Aid Agencies’, in Allan Thompson ed., The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, London: Pluto Press, 2007, p.173)
One might add that a certain level of guilt at not having responded to the genocide itself had built up and reporting on the aftermath was one way of atoning for this.
At first glance, this would seem to partially confirm the media trying to give the people what they want – easy to understand stories, and something to spark compassion without showing too much gruesome content. But consideration of the risk to the reporters and equipment, and issues of accessibility tell us that other factors are at work. Practicalities and cost, for example, seem to have at least partially held sway in this case over the gravity of the issue itself.
Furthermore, the crisis in Somalia in the early 1990s serves to seriously undermine the notion that the media is simply aiming to give the public what it wants, and cannot move an apparently disinterested public. If this were the case, a complex and seemingly inexplicable conflict involving numerous warlords fighting along clan lines in a barely known country in black Africa would never have risen to the headlines – but that is exactly what happened. In this case, the media was taking their cues from interested policymakers, not the public interest, but importantly, the public did become interested once they knew about it. Of course, once the decision to send in US troops was made, saturated media coverage was a foregone conclusion.
In short, the interest of the people in world events is not something that the media passively respond to – they actively work to shape, nurture and guide it. While complexity, the ability to sympathize (perceptions of innocence) and ability to identify (along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines, for example) still carry a lot of weight, it would be wrong to dismiss the media as being powerless servants to the interests of the people. The media may try to predict the interests of the people and market their products accordingly, but they also actively work to create interest where little exists to begin with, coming up with new ‘products’ to ‘sell’.
While noting the commercialization of the media (at the expense of independent editorial power to determine content) and while appreciating the need of media corporations to make money to continue operating, is it too idealistic to expect at least some measure of social responsibility from the media industry? Is it too much to expect that media corporations will give some consideration to the scale and gravity of events when making coverage decisions, and will at least make an honest attempt to tell us about what is happening in the world (and I mean the world, not just the ‘whiter’ portion of it)?
If the media do indeed see themselves as servants to the people, why don’t we the people – those of us who do want to know what is going on in the world – let them know what it is that we want to know and hold them accountable?