We don’t want to know

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 The lessons (of the response) are by no means out of date.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?


6 Responses to “We don’t want to know”

  1. it would be wrong to dismiss the media as being powerless servants to the interests of the people.

    I’m going to nominate this for a prize in distinguished understatement.

  2. Hi again,

    I just mentioned your blog in my recent post, and I agree with with a lot, if not most, of what you’re saying. Something I’m trying to get my head around is this:

    What steps should we take? If you were the UN, for example, what would you do to ensure the media behaves in a proper manner?

    Personally I think we probably have to hope for their diminishing powers to diminish further, and hope that the millions of bloggers, tweeters, diggers etc excercise their increasing power in an ethical way.

    Keep it up!

  3. Thanks for that, Simon. I wish I had the answers…

    In my book I was able to come up with a number of conclusions on the mechanisms behind stealth conflicts, but struggled to find recommendations on what to do about it. This is largely because all the major actors seem to be flocking together when it comes time to determine which conflicts are ‘important’ and which are not. This includes those that are supposed to be watchdogs and the objective observers of reality. This is not a conspiracy, but rather a result of market forces and peer pressure.

    There is unfortunately little that can be done to bring the media into line, and their commercial tendencies seem only to be getting stronger. A number of developing countries tried to do something about the Western grip on global information flow in the 70s and 80s, but failed, and the movement saw the withdrawal of the USA from UNESCO.

    The internet has the potential to serve as a way to circumvent this Western dominance, but it remains largely untapped. Western news corporations dominate the internet. But the potential is certainly there, and it is largely for this reason that I have started blogging.

    As you suggest, in our capacity as individuals, using the internet to expose and draw attention to the skewed flow of information in the world may be our best bet at chipping away…

  4. Blog admin Says:

    Hello Virgil,

    This is an issue I´ve thinking about for years.
    I think that the main asset of a news company is credibility. People have to believe that what you say is true, that they can rely on you. But credibility does not only consist on that.
    From my point of view, credibility from a journalistic point of view also means that you are able to distinguish what is news from what is not, what is worth telling and what is not (or is less worth telling). Every modern newspaper has tons of news waiting in a cue everyday. Journalists have to decide which one is relevant and which one is not. News have to be chosen or discarded.
    As a consumer who buys newspapers, credibility is the main feature I look for. Among other things, I consider credible a news company that repeteadly shows a moral criteria in the process of considering what is news. This depends on how the news company sees itself. If it sees itself as a company providing an important service (information), and is aware of its responsibility, it will have a deontological code able, for instance, to prioritize complex wars with a high death toll in the front page, no matter how complex and far they are.
    Unfortunately, the media are not anymore watchdogs (like in the time of Woodward and Bernstein). What counts is not information, but infotainment. Above any other consideration, newspapers nowadays are businesses looking for profit. That leaves credibility as an adjective, not a substantive, feature. One of the consequences is leaving complex and unpleasant news in the drawer.
    Thank god that we have the internet to be watchdogs ourselves. According to everyone, the internet is going to change (is already changing) the news business forever.

    all the best,


  5. HI guys,

    This is true. What strikes me though is that I meet so many journalists who still have ethical standpoints. I know they do not run the media, and they do not select the news but I’m positive there are people out there with the standing, the know how and the skills to get this story out – yet still it fails. I suppose this shows the power the of the corporate media sector.

    The DR Congo is complex, but complexity does not tend to stop the media from simplifying the story. I do think coupled with the horror of the events it might be left on the shelf, but again if this happened to white people the media would be all over it.

    This article may be of interest: It was written by my very great professor and current thesis advisor http://lass.calumet.purdue.edu/cca/gmj/fa08/gmj-fa08-hamelink-hoffman.htm

    Finally, I hope you are both ok with me posting these responses on my blog? I would like to leave a trail of information which I gather there. If you have a problem, just let me know and I’ll take it down.

    All the best guys,

  6. Thanks for those comments. They raise very important points. To add on, the problem with the media corporations is not only the fact that they are so profit conscious. There is also the issue of conflict of interest. With ownership of the media corporations so tightly linked with the ownership of other corporations (banks, investment companies, mines etc), standing up to big business in conflict zones can become something that is directly against their own interests. See these pages by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR): http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=101 and http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2870.

    I think there are certainly plenty of journalists out there that are genuinely interested in bringing stealth conflicts into the light, but there are just too many walls that block these efforts at the editorial and commercial levels.

    And Simon, you are welcome to post my responses on your blog. The aim is get the ideas out to as broad an audience as possible!

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