What do you really want when you want journalists to cover distant suffering?

The Western mainstream news media is constantly accused of failing to cover the problems of less powerful or wealthy parts of the world. Is this fair?

One of the things I was most proud of as a reporter in my first job on the Croydon Comet, the kind of advertising free-sheet that people use to line their cat-litter tray, was to get an article published about my trip to post-revolutionary Nicaragua. It extolled the virtues of the Sandinistas’ efforts to build democracy and a more equal economy. Why did I work so hard to convince my hard-bitten ex-Fleet Street editor to run that piece for our suburban south London readers?

I went into journalism to influence people. I hoped that my work might change the world, at least little by little. I’m one of the 5% of the population who are actively ideological. For example, the best thing I ever did as a student hack back in the early 80s was a double feature on race relations in Leicester, a multi-ethnic city where the National Front were active. I hoped it would make people aware of the danger of fascism and so act against it.

I still have that motive, even more as someone who works to understand and change journalism, rather than a professional news-maker. Yet, I am much more sceptical about those who complain about the news media’s lack of interest, let alone understanding, of suffering and politics in places that don’t have a direct connection with us as individuals, communities or countries.

This is all relative, of course. By birth, upbringing, life relationships and career I am intrinsically someone with an international outlook. I don’t claim to be the most generous of spirits, but I care about and am fascinated by other places and people.

Yet a lot of the ‘what about xxx place?’ and ‘why don’t the media cover xxx event?’ comments profoundly misunderstand the capacity of journalism and the reality of political change. In fact, I would go so far to say that much well-intentioned cosmopolitanism can actually hinder any real empathy, let alone effective policies for solidarity. This is especially true when it manifests itself online.

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An unusual example of a ‘distant’ event making the front page in the West.

Here are some bullet point thoughts:

  • All journalism is local. There is a very natural hierarchy of attention built on relevance: distance, economic and cultural connections, and history.

I’m saying this as someone who has been deeply impressed by the more critical approach to media cosmopolitanism shown, for example, by colleagues in my department at the LSE*. I joined the LSE to set up my international journalism think-tank Polis ten years ago inspired by the late Professor Roger Silverstone. He wrote one of the best books ever about why news media has a vital role in connecting us politically and ethically to ‘distant others’. Yet, at the heart of his plea for journalism to do more to help us understand the interconnected world we live in was the idea of ‘proper distance’. My interpretation of this concept is that journalists should act on empathy but not in a patronising way that has more to do with their feelings than the political realities of the relationship between powerful people in the west and ‘victims’ elsewhere. Most problems in ‘other’ places are better solved by the people who live there.

At the moment we are in a paradoxical situation. We have the technology that makes reporting instantly and in depth about the world more easy than ever. We have access to more information about other places than ever before, either by journalists who live there or by international correspondents and experts. Yet there is such an abundance of information that we struggle to see what is relevant. It is easy to Tweet about a disaster in Somalia or a conflict in Yemen. Often people complain about a lack of coverage when, in fact, there has been reporting, it just hasn’t made the top of the bulletin or the front page.

I think as consumers of journalism we need to ask ourselves tougher questions about what we think people should do if there was more coverage of a particular place or issue. Are we just looking for a quick hit of moral self-satisfaction or are we prepared for engaged attention and action?

As journalists, we need to ask better questions about our agenda. Not just whether we cover those distant stories, but how and what for. As the Grenfell Tower scandal has shown, distant suffering and a disconnection from others might also be close to home.

As the LSE’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission hopes to show, this issue is now made even more complex and pressing as our public information ecology is becoming disrupted by fake news, disinformation, and technological and market changes that are changing our ability to report and act through media. In the midst of all these sources and stories it can be harder to connect people to challenging, credible content.

It is right that we make ethical and political demands upon journalism. It still has great capacity to influence the world. The decisions we are making now about how the news media evolves will shape that in profound ways. This is not just about individual decisions about what to cover, it’s about the future nature of journalism itself.

This article by Professor Charlie Beckett, director of the LSE’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission.

*Check out the work of Lilie Chouliaraki, Myria Georgiou, Shani Orgad for starters.

Written by

Journalist, LSE media professor, Polis think-tank director. Writes about journalism, UK & global politics

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