Thursday, 22 May 2008

CNN effect or Compassion Fatigue?

The notion that global media can have an effect on diplomacy, geopolitics and humanitarian responses to disasters has been called the "CNN effect". But the global media is also fickle, with a short attention span. It often does not take long for "compassion fatigue" to set in, and for the global media to search for some gory news elsewhere. Clever governments, aid agencies and PR workers who know how the media works, can use this to their advantage. In an interesting piece in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins compares the way that the Chinese government responded to the recent earthquake, to the response of the Burmese junta to the recent flooding resulting from a cyclone in the region. The former managed to play up their response to the global media, in order to offset negative coverage of the country in the face of the upcoming Olympics. The latter continued to shun Western aid and attention, and the global media complied by averting their eyes from the Burmese victims and the situation in the country. An interesting dance, the one between media and power.
(pic: AFP/

Monday, 19 May 2008

Reporting Xenophobia

The reports about the past few days' xenophobic violence in Johannesburg directed against foreigners, mostly Zimbabweans, are shocking. While incidents like these are clad in the discourse of racism and ethnocentrism, they should in the first place be understood as directly related to material factors. No doubt some might want to construe these clashes as 'black on black violence' in the same manner as the state-sponsored violence between the ANC and Inkatha in the apartheid era was infamously described. Already the South African columnist David Bullard, fired from his job at the Sunday Times for his racist commentary, is gloating. But these clashes are firstly linked to the dire material circumstances in which the majority of South Africans live, almost 14 years into a democracy. In an environment where the competition for scarce resources is relentless, the poor are turning on themselves. Of course this also has to do with immigration policy (as suggested by The Guardian) and pres Thabo Mbeki's refusal to acknowledge the crisis in Zimbabwe, which prevented him from declaring the Zimbabweans fleeing to South Africa as refugees and ask for UNHCR assistance; it also has to do with crime and an under-resourced police force ill-equipped to control the violence; it has to do with a general erosion of human dignity after decades of oppression.
The media's reporting of these events has as usual been largely event-driven, with little attempt yet to understand them as part of larger socio-economic circumstances and policies (although there have been some good analyses, for instance here and here). While front pages such as the one posted here (the Cape Town-based newspaper Cape Times, owned by the Independent group) raise familiar questions regarding the ethics of the representation of violent acts, there is also an imperative for the media to analyse these events holistically, as part of the precarious living conditions of the poor in the country, one of the most unequal in the world, and the political response these conditions demand. Journalism should be at its best when it defends human dignity and respect for life. This is such a time.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Disaster porn

Western reporting on the 'rest of the world' remains an important topic. Coverage of the natural disasters in Burma (Myanmar) and China provide some of the most recent examples of how the Western media often engages in what Frank Furedi calls 'disaster porn' (thanks to my friend Winston Mano for sharing the link). Furedi argues that Western media reports on these tragedies often serve as morality lessons about 'failed societies', and provide the opportunity for the West to display their superiority - hidden beneath a veil of compassion.

This veil of compassion is often seen in the reporting on Zimbabwe as well. While telling stories of individual lives touched by tyranny and oppression can provide context and a human dimension to the 'colder' reports of vote rigging and corruption, these stories can also become showcases for the reporter's own heroism of reporting under difficult circumstances, for instance. Today, the UK tabloid the Daily Mail in an editorial even hinted at the need for an invasion of Zimbabwe:
"It is nothing less than shaming that Britain - a principal architect of invading Iraq on a far flimsier pretext - is prepared to stand aside without intervening as Mr Mugabe begins the genocidal electoral cleansing of our former colony. "
Ah, yes, another invasion. Just what the world needs now.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Language as Camouflage

Truth is the first casualty of war, as we know. It can also be a casualty of journalism, as this report from MediaLens claims. It refers to the BBC's coverage of an attack on Somali militants, which it says obscures US involvement in the clashes between Ethiopia and Somalia. The reports, they say, manage to obscure the role of the US in this African region simply by using the passive form (which is also often associated with the journalistic mantra of "objectivity" and "balance"). This is an example of why "reading against the grain" should be a media literacy skill.
(Picture : BBC website)