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.


March 23, 2008

A good idea from Northwestern competes for funding

Filed under: Africa,humanitarian,northern Uganda — carolynthewriter @ 7:07 am

I fear I’ve passed a funding competition deadline for mentioning this project, but I still think its approach is worth noting. Nathaniel Whittemore, director of the Center for Global Engagement at Northwestern University, left a comment on my previous post about the center’s efforts to teach undergraduates how best to help communities-in-need around the global. One of its programs sends 20 students to Uganda each year. 

The project that is entered in Netsquared’s Mashup Challenge is called

Its aim is to aggregate “information about where development projects happen, what they focus on, and who’s involved so that all of us concerned with supporting community-led efforts to rebuild northern Ugandan civil society can better share best practices, direct support, and collaborate for greater impact,” Whittemore wrote.

That might seem like a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t think information-sharing and collaboration can improve a project and its results? Yet anyone who has worked in international development relief and development know just how little collaboration there can be. Time constraints, and competition for funding, publicity and reputation can steamroll collaboration. So, too, can obliviousness by people on the ground who may have gotten their jobs because they were in the right place at the right time, rather than because they are development or relief professionals who know best practices. Even some of those professionals don’t always act as effectively as they could. Gasp! 

At the same time, Americans or U.S. organizations wanting to donate money or supplies to emergencies don’t always seek out information to make their contributions as effective as possible. When I was the manager of a Macedonian refugee camp for ethnic Albanians who had fled Kosovo in the late 1990s, I received a huge shipment of canned pork and beans from an overseas group. Did I mention the ethnic Albanians were Muslims who eat no pork? We regifted the shipment.

As northern Uganda moves from war to a tenuous peace, development groups are sure to flood into the region to take over from the emergency relief folks. There will be rampant duplication of efforts and donations made that relate to lower priorities. If can use students’ wit and Web prowess to improve development aid, they will themselves have made a tremendous contribution.      

March 4, 2008

The LRA Walk-Out

Filed under: northern Uganda — carolynthewriter @ 10:34 am

Come on, no one who has followed the slow-moving peace talks in Juba really thought that last week’s agreement between the government of Uganda and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army meant smooth sailing toward a full and final peace accord, did anyone? The LRA delegation to the peace talks reportedly walked out of a meeting yesterday. The sore point: the International Criminal Court indictments not being withdrawn.  

February 21, 2008

Rebels, Kampala agree on national war crimes court

Filed under: northern Uganda — carolynthewriter @ 11:12 am

This agreement seems to overcome one of the biggest hurdles in the peace talks taking place in Juba, South Sudan. It tries to strike a reasonable balance between pursuing peace and holding the major players in the Lord’s Resistance Army, especially its leader Joseph Kony, responsible for their acts. Rather than use the International Criminal Court, which really never should have taken this case anyhow, the pact calls for traditional justice for lower-level LRA members and a special Ugandan court venue for Kony and his top lieutenants. It would be unfair – and wrong – to ignore that the government gets to avoid scrutiny for its multiple misdeeds in this war. Still, peace is better than war and stolen childhoods.

Human rights groups, not to mention the ICC, are unhappy with the agreement since it would sidestep the International Criminal Court indictments against Kony and two others. As I mentioned, this case should not really have come before the ICC, which is supposed to become involved if the country where atrocities have occurred does not have a sufficient national justice system to deal with the perpetrators. Uganda does have a court, though it will require international monitoring to ensure transparent and proper proceedings take place. Postponing the ICC indictments does not mean there will be no justice, or even justice at the Hague. It simply means peace should come first. Then, we can see how justice is found. Still, there is a long way to go before that point.

Blog at