Muddy Notebook

June 27, 2008

Media stereotypes

These notes are the outline of a presentation I made at the University of Pennsylvania’s 2008 Summer Institute for Middle & High School Teachers:

“Demystifying Stereotypes and Understanding Contemporary Cultures in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East”

June 26, 2008

 

I’ve seen humanitarian issues from both sides of the fence: as a journalist and as a humanitarian worker.

I’ll be focusing on Africa, but media stereotyping is true of impoverished countries around the world, especially when a crisis occurs.

There are levels or layers of stereotyping: Stereotyping countries, stereotyping poverty, stereotyping man-made disasters, including war, and, most of all, stereotyping people caught in disadvantaged circumstances.

I learned intimately about the stereotypes, not as a reporter, but when I worked outside the field:

For my master’s thesis, I followed children who daily scavenged in the Phnom Penh, Cambodia garbage dump for recyclable materials they could sell. I went to the dump every morning before work. One day, a reporter came. I took enormous pride in the fact that I tromped through the piles of garbage right alongside the children, while the journalists stayed on this path that cut through the middle of the dump. I never saw their story, but I’d bet a week’s paycheck it was a predictable story line that followed the stereotypes of poor, miserable children who needed garbage to live. But did the stories reflect the children’s strategies they had cleverly developed for getting the best recyclables, for figuring out how to set aside a safe play area near the dump. Did the story note the children and their parents had rules to try to be as hygienic as possible at the dump, including not eating food they found in it?

In Macedonia, I managed a refugee camp for ethnic Albanian Kosovars who fled from the former Yugoslavian province of Kosovo. What are the stereotypes of refugees?

The Kosovars had their own stereotypes of refugees. They were poor Africans, dressed in rags, who lived in lean-to’s with blue plastic roofs. NATO helped reinforce a genuine class difference – raising the question of when are stereotypes truths created by other forces or reasons – by building the refugee camps for Kosovars because of NATO’s involvement in fighting Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. Also inherent in this example is racism – these camps, built for white Eastern Europeans were nicer than any refugee camp I’ve seen in Africa or Southeast Asia. Why did NATO intervene in this crisis? Why did NATO nations help in emergency relief in a way they don’t for other crises?

The camp I managed had sturdy tents instead of lean-to’s, many with wooden floors rather than mud, and stoves with a chimney to keep people warm. They demanded, and got, fresh baked bread every morning. There was a Spanish nongovernmental organization providing free cell phone service anywhere in the world.

A few journalists came to my camp. They talked to camp residents and undoubtedly got stories about how they had fled the oppression of Milosevic. But they didn’t stay around long enough to get to know the Graincafamily, whose mother strove everyday to make the camp and their tent feel like home to her four children. They didn’t learn about the elderly mother who didn’t have the means to care for her grown, severely disabled son, so she just left him in an empty tent one day. They didn’t know about the refugees who preyed on other refugees – you’re not a pure, innocent and good just because you’ve been a victim of violence. There were those in the camp who victimized others, who stole, who assaulted, leaders who were corrupt. A camp is like a city with all that.

The camp I worked with in Rwandadidn’t get treated nearly so royally. The Rwandan government wanted to move some refugees away from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the Interahamwe still operated, to deeper inside Rwanda. Fine, but the camp wasn’t ready. Refugees ended up having to build their own housing and dig latrines even as their families already were living there.

This brings us back to Africa, and media stereotypes of it. I’ve passed around a couple of essays on the topic written by Africans that are good synopses of problems in media coverage.

I also did a very quick, unscientific content survey of African news headlines from Google news searches.

I searched for “Ghana,” one of Africa’s success stories, and go about 10,000 hits. The top topic was 12 stories on Ghanaian politics, all written by Ghanaian newspapers. Nothing in the American press, even though the United Statesis supposed to be all about democratization around the world. Too inside-poitics? Maybe, but the U.S. media has consistently had a problem with figuring out how to report and write international topics in a way that is interesting to Americans.

My search for “Nigeria” drew 33,935 hits overall. There were 1,336 articles on Nigerian government army clashes with militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta. It’s on economics, which busts one stereotype that African countries don’t have economic successes or strengths, but reinforces another that coverage and concern (they go together) often are driven by oil. Most of those 1,336 stories incidentally, were in foreign or business-specific publications or shows. There was one story in a Lagos newspaper on a nationwide teachers’ strike – something that easily could have been of interest to Americans and told the story about education in another land. There also was one story, in the Christian Science Monitor, on Nigeria’s writes gaining a worldwide audience.

The hottest African news these days is about the political crisis in Zimbabwe. There were 4,976 stories on African nations pressuring Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to postpone the runoff election tomorrow that the opposition is shunning after government-led violence against it.

Those stories bust another stereotype: showing other African leaders condemning one of their own and urging him to shape up, which connects to a point made in one of the articles I gave you, “Africa’s Road to Better Media Image” by Salim Lone, in which the point was made that Africa needs to “put its own house in order” to help improve the continent’s image in western media. But it reinforces the stereotype of African nations all being a mess.

Let me leave you with these thoughts: You can’t stereotype stereotyping. It’s not purely bad covering humanitarian catastrophes. Coverage informs people about dire situations in isolated pockets of the world, and builds public pressure and public aid to help. We have seen what happens, in Rwanda or in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, when the media is not there to shine an international spotlight on atrocities. Some stereotypes are borne of real situations and biases that help maintain imbalances or bad circumstances.

What’s needed when reporting on or teaching about foreign locales and people is a fuller knowledge and context, and a desire to look behind the sexiest news, information-gathering that the Internet makes much easier these days, and to figure out how to make the mundane interesting and vital – because it is.

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