We are surrounded by news 24 hours a day and it is impossible to pay attention to all of it. Most of us skim through the highlights and are informed of what goes on in the world, but seldom do we pay enough attention to each story to discover what happens to it in the media. I have, for the last three months, paid very much attention to the KONY2012 issue and how it has been presented in the media. Not only did I follow the issue but I reflected upon concepts related to the media; like manipulation, the public sphere and semiotics. This post is about what I discovered in relation to that.
The media is important to us, it is our public sphere, and it is where we share, receive and discuss information about the world and what concerns us. Unfortunately the media fails in many ways as a public sphere as information gets distorted in a swirl of bias, lies, facts and opinions. There are so many news broadcasters in the world today and they all filter the news to suit a specific audience. By tailoring the news according to their local audiences’ interests, many different views of one case are told to different people.
In the KONY2012 debate this was very clear. The western audiences have a certain interest in economy and power and so the western media reported on money, facts and the intentions of The Invisible Children. On the other hand, media broadcasters with a different target market, like Al Jazeera who wants to be “a voice of the voiceless”, talked about the Ugandan people, justice, empathy and real experiences. It took over a week before these important views were presented to us. My blogpost “Filtered News” goes more in depth on this.
Of course, social media is now also a big part of our public sphere, and here we have an opportunity for a more democratic sphere, but we also face the problem of a greater digital divide.
In addition to this, manipulation is a keyword within mainstream media. The Invisible Children, either if you think it was exploitive or genius, knew who they were targeting and that is why their video was so successful. Given that they planned to release the video online they knew their biggest audience would be teenagers, and this is why they made a video and not a streamed lecture. Other noticeable tactics were the simplifying of a complex issue, starring of young people and children as key-figures. Playing on emotions and empathy was a clear strategy of The Invisible Children.
While I am on the topic of manipulation I want to bring up George Gerbner and his cultivation theory. He argued that the media, in the long-term, lead people to believe the social reality portrayed by the media, also called “the mean world syndrome”. When Jason Russell had his public breakdown, mainstream media decorated their headlines with words like “public masturbation”, “running naked in streets” and “car wrecking” leading everyone to adopt this point of view, hashtages like #BONY2012 was all over Twitter short after. It goes to show how much influence the media can have on us.
Probably the most interesting part of the KONY issue for me was the relevance it had to semiotics. This is a complex concept, but basically it is about the reading of images and how we interpret them differently due to ideologies and experiences of the world. In KONY2012 there was an American organization which told the story of a long and complex issue in Africa to the whole world by the use of videos, pictures and text. Depending on where in the world we are from, we carry different histories and different experiences and therefore we view the world in different ways, our understanding of one story will be very diverse from others. While I saw The Invisible Children as a caring and thoughtful group who wanted to help, the Ugandan people reacted with disgust and felt the Americans were victimizing their race.
When we are dealing with global issues we should take notice of where other people come from and their history to gain a better understanding of their opinions. I think we often take for granted that everyone else should “see what we see”, we very often miss to see the reasons for other peoples actions because of this attitude.
Also other topics like moral panic and causes and effects are helpful when analysing new headlines. Our public sphere has become a complex space of ideas and information, and we must become active listeners to get the information right. News-reading changes with these concepts in mind, and can help us think before we act.