The home connection
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.