Archive for August, 2010

Conflict coverage 2009

Posted in media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 August, 2010 by Virgil

Here is a graph that brings home the difference between chosen conflicts and stealth conflicts. It is based on a search for news items related to armed conflicts throughout the world covered by the evening news of the major US television networks. The search was conducted using the Vanderbilt University database of evening news (covering ABC, CBS, NBC, one hour per day of CNN, and Fox) for the year 2009.

The graph requires little explanation. Conflicts in which the USA was involved as a belligerent (Afghanistan, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan), and the eternal chosen conflict, Israel-Palestine, in which the USA is indirectly involved, received large amounts of attention. Afghanistan in particular attracted concentrated coverage, reflecting a renewed interest in, and active debate over, US military involvement in that country. Viewers of US television news had the opportunity to watch as much as 18 hours of coverage of Afghanistan over the course of the year.

Beyond these chosen conflicts, coverage abruptly drops off into near insignificance. In fact, these four conflicts account for an incredible 97 percent of the total amount of conflict coverage for the year. The fifth most covered conflict, Darfur, managed roughly 27 minutes of coverage for all of the networks combined over the course of the year. For the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the total coverage was just 7 minutes, and this was mostly focused on the threat to animals from the conflict, and on the visit to the DRC by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This marginalization should by no means be viewed as a reflection of the lack of conflict – fighting and insecurity displaced as many as one million people over the course of the year in the DRC.

Also noteworthy is the marginalization of the conflict in Sri Lanka. 2009 marked the final offensive of the government forces against the Tamil Tiger rebels (LTTE), ending a long and bloody war. These developments should have made for a major news story. But the government was quite successful in shutting down and intimidating local media, and in shutting out foreign media during this time. Without images of the conflict and its humanitarian consequences, and critically, without the involvement of the USA, for the US television media, the story simply failed to become newsworthy, and it was ignored.

This introverted and myopic media perspective is all a sad reflection of the failures of the media – the failure to recognize conflict scale even as one of the factors determining levels of coverage, and the failure to look at the world in its entirety. Coverage of conflicts by US media corporations (and of the world in general, for that matter) is dependent on strong US involvement or interest, and all those that are not the recipient of such involvement or interest remain under a virtual news blackout, however large in scale they may be. From the perspective of the media, a conflict is either a chosen one or a stealth one, with virtually no middle ground between the two.

It is quite ironic that in this day and age of rapid globalization, in which survival and prosperity are dependent on knowledge and understanding of the world, and in which there is potentially access to any amount of information about anywhere, the media persists with such a narrow and highly selective view of the world. And with so few observers calling for change or even pointing out this obvious imbalance in coverage, it can hardly be expected that the situation will be any different for 2010 and beyond.

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The home connection

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 August, 2010 by Virgil

Yesterday, CNN ran a story about a US citizen (Lisa Shannon) who, inspired by a story on Oprah about the abuse of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), started a movement that does charity runs to assist Congolese women. The news item featured some facts and figures on the humanitarian tragedy of the conflict and some images, but Shannon is the only person we hear from. The DRC is the setting (or the backdrop), but the story is about her.

It seems the story has been doing the rounds in the USA and in basically the same formats. ABC News also aired a story on the same subject, with an online article also appearing entitled “Run for Congo: American helps Congo’s women escape violence, one step at a time”. The story is about Shannon’s awakening to the issue and her efforts to get the movement going.

In this particular case, this format for the presentation of the story, or ‘lens’, was already largely in place before it reached the media. The subtitle of the book written by Shannon (“A thousand sisters”) is “My journey into the worst place on Earth to be a woman”, and, according to the blurb, the story is indeed about her journey. Photos of the story, both on the website and on the cover of the book are of Shannon embracing (comforting?) Congolese women.

These observations are in no way meant to take away from the value of these efforts to draw attention to this the world’s deadliest conflict, and to ameliorate the suffering it has caused. The movement and the news stories it generates means more people become aware in some way of the issue. But by the same token, one can’t help but wonder why this home connection is seen as being so essential to whether foreign events and issues are deemed as being newsworthy or not. While I grudgingly acknowledge the sad reality that some people find it easier to identify with a distant story when there is a connection with a person/people with the same skin colour and/or passport colour, the media has taken this way too far. The same can be said for books. A large proportion of books about Africa that one can find on the shelves of a bookstore in the West are about the adventures or travails of white people in Africa, rather than about Africa itself.

Probably one of the worst cases of this syndrome I have ever seen was in the Australian Newspaper’s atrocious reporting of the findings of a mortality survey that 3.8 million people had died as a result of conflict in the DRC in 2004. Far from focusing on the unparalleled scale of the conflict or even on the conflict itself, the article focused on the fact that a number of members of the survey team happened to be Australian citizens. The article (9 December 2004) was entitled “Aussie counts 3.8 million dead in Congo”, and words informing the readers of the Australian-ness of the team appeared a further five times in the article. It was as though what had just become known as the world’s deadliest conflict simply didn’t matter, and that the newspaper was just proud that some Australian citizens were facing hardships to do something noble somewhere.

Clearly there is a problem when the presence of a home connection makes the difference between whether an issue is reported on or is almost completely ignored. It contributes to a terribly distorted picture of what is happening in the world, and perpetuates nationalistic perspectives of world affairs. And the ever-present stereotype of generous Westerners making great efforts and going through hardships to help those less fortunate (who often remain undeveloped characters and the largely passive recipients of charity) has been considerably overdone.

From another perspective, though, this Run for Congo example does show what the power of a single news story about a distant crisis that apparently does not affect us (those with different skin and/or passport colour) can be. From among the millions of viewers that see such a crisis story, even if the majority may remain unaffected/uninterested, for perhaps tens of thousands of people or more, interest at some level is pricked, and for a select few, the end result may even be direct and committed action. This says something about the media’s marginalization of issues on the grounds that people at home are not interested.

On a related side note, there are reports that Hollywood is changing, that business concerns related to growing foreign markets for movies are starting to make some movies less US-centric. This interesting article from the Wall Street Journal talks about how some movie production companies in Hollywood, with a view to making movies more “global” and thereby attractive to foreign viewers, are rewriting/rejecting some movie scripts on the grounds that they are “too American”.

There may still be hope yet.

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Lindsay Lohan in prison

Posted in Africa, celebrities and advocacy, comedy, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 August, 2010 by Virgil

As we all well know, US celebrity Lindsay Lohan is behind bars, locked up for a violation of the terms of her release in a charge in connection with driving under the influence of alcohol. It is important for us as members of the public endowed with a ‘right to know’ to keep abreast of the critical developments of this important story, and to engage in dialogue with our fellow citizens about the finer points of the story and its implications for the international community as a whole.

I am well aware that both the mainstream and tabloid media, along with the blogosphere and other informal arenas of information exchange are already well on top of the situation – all are overflowing with valuable information and analysis from a variety of viewpoints. Unable, however, to contain my own volatile emotional mix of human concern, curious fascination, voyeuristic urges and slight satisfaction at the downfall of an individual enjoying excess fame and fortune, I have decided to join the masses and devote this blog post to the plight of Lindsay Lohan.

And let’s face it, with such an eventless past week or so, journalistically speaking, where would we be without Lindsay Lohan? Nothing much else worthy of reporting has been happening in the world.

Oh yes, there was the 15th Summit of the African Union (AU) in Kampala Uganda, coming just two weeks after the terrorist bombings that claimed 76 lives in the same city and that marked the first foreign attack by Al Shabaab (based in Somalia). And yes, numerous heads of state, including the leaders South Africa (Zuma), Nigeria (Jonathan), Senegal (Wade), Kenya (Kibaki), Ethiopia (Meles) and Libya (Gaddafi), were in attendance at the three-day Summit. 

OK, so they did do a bit of talking about measures to bring the conflict in Somalia under control, and may have made some decisions about boosting the size of the AU force in that country. Anti-terror measures were also high on the agenda. And there was a lot of talk about how to deal with the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for Sudanese President Al Bashir (who did not attend the Summit) on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and recently, genocide. The AU is against the indictment and warrant for his arrest, thinking that these will have a negative impact on the achievement of peace in Darfur.

On other political issues, there was concern about delays in holding elections in places like Cote D’Ivoire and the Central African Republic, political instability in Madagascar, and the problems with the Ethiopian-Eritrean peace process.

The many leaders of Africa did also talk about the challenges and achievements associated with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the poverty that is affecting millions of people on the continent. The theme of the Summit was, after all, maternal and infant health.

But in the scheme of things, this is all really inconsequential. The important questions facing the world that need to be asked include: just how preferential is Lindsay Lohan’s treatment in prison? Has she really been making demands for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream? Is she crying herself to sleep each night and keeping the other prisoners awake? How soon will she be released? As the publication L.A. Now points out, “There’s been much speculation about how Lindsay Lohan is being treated behind bars”.

And this is how the mass media have arranged their priorities. This trend is by no means limited to the media in Los Angeles or even the USA, or to the tabloid media, either. The UK’s Times and Japan’s Yomiuri are among the many major (supposedly non-tabloid) newspapers based outside the USA that have devoted more coverage to Lindsay Lohan’s plight than to the AU Summit.

Having said all this, we really shouldn’t get too carried away with the Lindsay Lohan situation and let it overshadow other important issues happening in the world. The wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky has just taken place, and with the nuptials so shrouded in secrecy, we need to be even more diligent in acquiring information regarding this event. This wedding is indeed also quite deserving of the critical scrutiny of citizens aware of their civic duties. Thankfully, the media is doing its job here – as People magazine reports “The months of speculation on whom Chelsea Clinton would choose to design her wedding dress are finally over — and it’s Vera Wang!”

Praise is certainly due to the mass media, for fulfilling their responsibilities in addressing our right to know, and for their ever-vigilant stance on the important issues affecting the lives of humankind and the world as a whole.

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