An Unseen World: How the Media Portrays the Poor
November 27, 2001 - By Greg Philo

For over 30 years, numerous academic studies of how news flows between the developing and the developed world have reached the same conclusion: far from being two-way, news circulates in a deeply uneven and distorted manner. "Not only is there a quantitative imbalance in news flow, with the Third World receiving far more material about the First World than vice versa," says media theorist Annabelle Sreberny, "but the continual coverage of the global centres of the industrial world contrasts with the intermittent images of the south in crisis."

One frequent criticism has been that news focuses on disasters and conflicts without explaining the complex social and political histories behind them. The role of the West also tends to be ignored-notably when African countries were deployed as pawns in the Cold War.

Major news services such as BBC, ITV, Agence France-Presse and Reuters have all been accused of offering very limited accounts of the developing world. In the U.S., journalist Mort Rosenblum has attacked the obsession of media controllers with ratings and their promotion of what they see as entertainment rather than reliable information. A study by Steve Askin found that in 1992, the story of hunger in Africa was only deemed suitable for U.S. coverage when it was discovered that elephants were also dying in the drought.

But are TV audiences really this shallow? It is a critical question that very few studies have tackled. One survey in Scandinavia found that press coverage of the developing world was dominated by war and conflict, but that readers actually said they wanted more on local culture and "normal" life. In Britain, meanwhile, a major project was recently commissioned by the Government's Department for International Development out of concern over how TV's depictions of the developing world could affect public attitudes. (*)

A companion study by the Third World and Environment Broadcasting Trust (3WE) interviewed 38 senior broadcasters and programme makers, helping bring to light the assumptions made about reports from poor countries. As the Director of Programmes at Carlton Television in London commented: "I know from past experience that programmes about the developing world don't bring in the audiences. They're not about us, and they're not usually about things we can do anything about."

A negative diet of images

It is not hard to see the effects of such assumptions on coverage. A report for 3WE concluded that the total output of factual programmes on developing countries by the four terrestrial channels in Britain dropped by 50 percent in the 10 years after 1989. Our own study showed that when the developing world is featured on British news, a high proportion of the coverage is related to war, conflict, terrorism and disasters.This is especially so for the main television channels, with over a third of coverage on BBC and Independent Television News (ITN) devoted to such issues.

Much of the remaining coverage is given over either to sport or to visits by westerners. For example, in our sample the Bahamas were in the news because Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall had paid a visit there, and some countries were featured simply because the balloon belonging to Virgin's boss Richard Branson had floated over them.

One reason for these changes has been the greatly increased competition for audiences following the rise of satellite and cable channels. Combined with the onset of a free market from the 1980s and general television "de-regulation," this has led to a commercial obsession with grabbing viewers' attention-a kind of "watch me and buy something culture."

Yet this is not necessarily what television viewers want. When we actually interviewed audience groups, we found that people's attitudes were rather different from what the broadcasters had assumed. Some people were completely "turned off" from the developing world (about 25 percent of the sample), but the reason was in part the constant negative diet of images they were given. As one interviewee put it: "Well every time you turn on the TV or pick up a paper, there's another (war) starting or there is more poverty or destruction. It is all too much."

Nearly all the people interviewed recalled negative images since that was largely what they had been exposed to on television. Levels of interest, however, were not nearly so uniform. What actually bothered a majority of viewers was that they simply did not understand the images they were being shown. As one put it: "I have a constant sense of not being properly informed about background to issues and things like that."

A frequent complaint was that journalists merely took for granted that the audience knew what the story was about. In the course of this study, we worked very closely with journalists and some confirmed what the viewers were saying. One commented to us that news reporters were effectively told not to focus on explanation, but to go for eye-catching events like fighting, shooting or riots. As he put it, they had been stopped from doing "explainers"-now it was "all bang, bang stuff."

As a result of this work, we began to discuss with journalists how TV coverage might be improved. We agreed that we would conduct a new pilot study in which BBC journalists joined a focus group of "ordinary" TV watchers. The purpose was to examine what these viewers understood (or didn't) from a TV news report, and then to discuss this with the journalists who had actually made the news item. We also wanted to find out how much the viewers' understanding of the story affected their level of interest in it. David Shukman from the BBC was one of the journalists present, and we began by watching two news reports that he had presented on the continuing war in Angola and the terrible effects which land mines had on the local population.

His report contained very distressing images and had a strong impact, producing great sympathy from the viewers. Yet it also had the normal negative effect of being interpreted as one more set of war images from Africa. The viewers' response was that it was sad, but nothing really to do with them since nothing could be done. The news report had noted that the oil and diamond trades financed the crisis, and that because of corruption within Angola, people in that country profited from the war. This fitted the viewers' notions that it was basically an "African" problem, because as they saw it, African people were simply not very good at governing themselves.

At this point I intervened in the discussion and introduced some new information. I asked the group where the mines and munitions had come from. The group reasoned that they came from industrialized countries, and that Britain, America and Eastern Europe sold armaments. I then asked how they thought the weapons were paid for. The answer was through the sale of diamonds, oil and by money laundering, all of which had been mentioned in the news item. I drew their attention to suggestions that the City of London was involved in the illicit transfer of large sums of money from Africa (e.g. London Evening Standard 20/10/00). I proceeded to ask them if anyone was wearing a diamond.

We eventually did this exercise with three different groups and in each of them there was a very surprised reaction to this question and great shock at the implication that if they purchased a diamond in Britain, it could be paying for landmines. I then pointed out to them the illicit trade in "blood diamonds" and how this supported wars across Africa. In all of the groups, the new information provoked a very animated discussion and led the viewers to ask why such background was not given on television. The journalists were grilled on this by group members, who believed that the news was being censored, though the journalists denied that this was the case.

Enlightening viewers

The important point to emerge from this study was that the interest of the viewers in the group increased greatly once they understood the political and economic links underpinning the conflicts witnessed on television. Most crucially, they realized that they were involved themselves and no longer saw the problem as just an "African" issue. If people understand that global political and economic relationships are fostering problems, then they can also see that these relationships can be changed. The sense that "nothing can be done" is altered, and audiences start to see the world quite differently.

Our research was significant in that it enabled journalists and academic specialists to work together to improve the quality of news and its capacity to explain. If this collective work is now pursued, it may be possible to develop new structures and practices for reporting on the developing world.


Greg Philo is professor of Communications at the University of Glasgow and Research Director of the Glasgow University Media Group

* The study was undertaken by the Glasgow Media Group and examined both television news content and the reaction of audience groups A fuller version of the results of the Glasgow Media Group studies is available as "Audience Interest and Understanding of News Programmes," www.gla.ac.uk/Acad/Sociology/media.html.

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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