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.
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.
- Attention, let alone the energy or time to act upon what we know, is limited. The language of politics is priorities. When we make an appeal for greater awareness and action about a distant place, we need to think more rigorously about why we make a claim for one case rather than all the many others.
- As I’ve written elsewhere, I think the drift towards a more emotional, subjective journalism has positive aspects and is inevitable. But when our interest is driven by compassion do we risk driving policy-making into ineffective, short-term, and ineffective directions? A classic case would be the Kony2012 saga, but the principle applies more widely.
- Much of the demand for cosmopolitanism is driven by special interests such as the western aid sector who have well-meaning, but self-interested reasons for special pleading. It also often springs from a more globalist class of people who enjoy an education and lifestyle that connects them to these more exotic causes. (Yes, I’m talking about us at the LSE — I’m very proud of our internationalism but there’s always the danger of a domestic disconnect).
- Much of the demand for cosmopolitanism is driven by frustration at the mundane, gradualist realities of trying to effect change closer to home. It feels so much more clear-cut ethically to complain about slum conditions or civil war in a far-flung state rather than the complex task of fiscal redistribution or welfare reform here. This is not a cheap jibe about ‘value-signalling’, (OK, perhaps it is a bit), more a plea that any cosmopolitan concern should be more than liberal one-up personship.
- Understand the limits of journalism. Creating beautiful interactive, 360 degree, long-form reports about something horrid happening somewhere else will not guarantee engagement, let alone effect change. If it was that easy then journalists would rule the world and I’m not convinced that’s a good idea.
- By all means lobby individual news brands, or advocate for specific causes. But understand that the ability of journalism to do anything is conditioned by the profound structural changes in the way news is now made, distributed and consumed.
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.