Thursday, September 28, 2006

Objective reporting means telling the whole truth

Earlier this month, I wrote about the western media's skewed portrait of Africa and attempts to offer a fairer picture of a complicated and nuanced continent.

There was even a conference on the subject recently in Johannesburg.

The western media typically focuses on bad news. On local and national issues too, not just African ones. "If it bleeds, it leads," goes the saying.

When I pick up my local paper, I tend to read bad news all around. Domestic violence. Political croynism. Influx of drugs into my area. So genocide in Africa isn't out of place in this narrative of negativity.

The difference is that people have first hand experience of their town, state and country to counterbalance the negativity. I know there are bad things going on around here. But I also know many examples of good things going on. Of people helping families whose houses burned down or whose kid has a serious illness. I know of countless smaller kindnesses that occur too. My personal experience acts as a counterbalance to the media's focus on negativity.

But very few westerners have that same first hand experience when it comes to Africa. Hence, there is nothing to counterbalance the media's portrayal.

I don't think the western media consciously tries to smear Africa. Though I think there is the consideration that appealing to liberal pity and guilt is good for ratings/circulation.

I just think the media are lazy. Too lazy to tell good news in a compelling way. Covering bad news is straight forward. Just pick a random war, genocide or famine. Interview random government, rebel and/or NGO officials. Throw in the most provocoative quotes. Add water and stir.

Covering good news is a lot less formulaic. Journalists have to do a little digging.

Western journalism in Africa is very top down. It's heavily reliant on interviewing high ranking official types in capitals or major cities. Quite often, the good news stories are with ordinary people in the smaller towns and villages. These people and places aren't even on the radar screens of most western journalists.

But they are on the radar screens of the really good ones. Radio Netherlands' Eric Beauchemin is a great example of how a western journalism can do justice in reporting on Africa.

His pieces focus not on the presidents and ministers and rebel leaders. They focus on simple, ordinary Africans. The AIDS orphan who, at 12 years old, has to care and provide for her younger siblings. Gay and women's rights activists fighting for fair treatment by government and scoiety. These people may be victims of injustice but they are not lazy and they do not passively accept their fate.

This is how excellent journalism is practiced. Take a broader issue and show how ordinary people deal with it. It takes a little more effort than just getting a quote or two from the information minister and the opposition leader.

Objectivity doesn't simply mean telling the truth. It means telling the whole truth.


At 6:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the only problem with this concept of objectivity is that it may not actually exist. i dont think any reporter, any human being is able to present a situation without some sort of angle. objectivity assumes that we are able to immaculately remove ourselves from or subjectivity and constituitive contexts. i think the problem with american media's representation of africa (as well as folks of the african diaspora) is that like many americans, we are bad at history. our history spans years not centuries. we talk about violence and elections in the DRC without addressing the legacy of colonialism, america's assasination of lumumba among other pertinent information. we even saw this historical amnesia with the lebanon-israel situation in august where reporters presented the crisis as reflective of a 4-week struggle rather than decades of complicated history. i hope american media, will become better at historical analysis and its politics of representation.

ps. great blog by the way


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