International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Sensationalism and Intervention

(My apologies in advance).

While there are many aspects of the Kony 2012 video that can be debated, the issue that most interests and concerns me is that of sensationalism in media coverage of conflicts and the potential effects it has on aid and humanitarian interventions.  The Invisible Children, Kony 2012 video received much (mostly deserved) criticism but the style of media coverage and fund/awareness raising is nothing new.  The American media is structured around the idea that “if it bleeds it leads.”  This sounds despicable, yet is a concept that has grown out of the interests and attentions of the public.  Americans (possibly humans in general) are drawn to and fascinated by the worst of the worst (or at least the worst until things become too real or uncomfortable to deal with) and the media caters to that interest.  The Kony 2012 video very effectively tugged at the heart-strings of the American public and turned more heads towards central Africa than any other media project since the movie Hotel Rwanda.

It’s extremely difficult to pull egocentric populations out of their daily lives for more than a second of caring or concern.  So, the question is, should the media utilize sensationalism to gain the quick attention and dollars of hundreds of thousands, or work to accurately and thoroughly represent these types of situations and gain the more sustainable attention of only a few hundred or thousand?

Eve Ensler has used a similarly over-the-top method to raise awareness of rape in eastern Congo and the creation of her City of Joy.  She created the term “femicide” and effectively brought the phrase “rape as a weapon of war” and the sound-byte “rape capital of the world” to the dialogue on S.V. in eastern Congo.  But while these sensational, often ego-stroking, superficial disseminations may turn many more heads, there are grave consequences. There is power in numbers, but problems lie in the type of power and how it’s used.

Overly-sensationalized media doesn’t just under-inform, it misinforms, leading people to believe i.e. that catching Kony would make the LRA disappear or would solve the problems in the Great Lakes Region.  This misinformation doesn’t only waste opportunities to genuinely inform the international community, it furthers the divide between more developed nation populations and those the media projects are “reporting” on.  Aside from the social implications of this, it can have devastating real-world consequences.

We’ve seen rash, emotionally driven attempts to help repeatedly make problems worse (i.e., after the earthquake in Haiti, the 2004 tsunami in Thailand).  Eve Ensler’s V-Day organization raised millions of dollars (plus grants from USAID and UNICEF) to open The City of Joy in Bukavu, and while the project is hailed in the international media, it’s widely considered hugely unsustainable by aid workers on the ground and the relatively posh establishment in a very poor area could even cause further victimization of the women it aims to help.

Simple phrases like “the blood in your cellphone,” and “rape capital of the world,” draw otherwise unattainable attention and funding, but the over-simplification of conflict, life, and potential solutions so often make matters worse.  In many cases, specifically the more extreme ones such as Kony 2012, Haiti, etc., both the ends and the means take us all backwards.  But on a more consistent and sustainable level, if the results do benefit the targeted population do the ends justify the means in terms of sensationalism when “if it bleeds it leads?” Or does sensational media so consistently make matters worse that the entire genre should be fought and humanitarian work would be better served with smaller, more knowledgeable and effective numbers?  Speaking only to information not implementation, is it better to slightly misinform the masses and further the divide between cultures/populations or to attempt thorough education of only a few and leave the rest to live their merry lives?

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4 responses to “Sensationalism and Intervention

  1. mjbarnes1 November 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    Amy, while you raise many interesting points about the problem of sensationalism in the media, I am afraid that I have to disagree with your assessment of the problems it can cause. Yes, media reporting in dominated by a “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality, and yes, often these sensationalist accounts are often littered with inaccuracies, but ultimately, I think the benefits of these campaigns far outweigh the potential and tenuous harms you outlined (harms which can often also be minimised).

    1. Any understanding is better than none at all. Too often individual nations, especially the US, are insular and inward-looking. They refuse to look beyond their own domestic problems unless there is the potential that it will damage international interests and objectives, and unfortunately, conflicts in the DRC or Uganda fall under this classification. Before Kony 2012 or Ensler’s V-Day campaigns, I doubt the vast majority of Americans would have heard about the LRA or the epidemic problem of rape as a weapon in the eastern Congo. Any campaign that fosters some form of education about conflicts, intervention or transitional justice is inherently good. Why? Because it encourages people to become involved. To exert political pressure on governments take some form of action (look at the response of the US Congress to the Kony campaign – would it now be possible for the US to block UNSC resolutions surrounding the LRA/Ugandan conflict). To create an international mandate to stop the conflict in the region and bring criminals to justice. Again and again, we have seen how important civil society pressure has helped to further the implementation and success of transitional justice. Why would we want to hinder merely because people might think that the LRA is concentrated in Uganda instead of being spread through neighbouring countries?

    2. Sensationalism actually promotes debate and discourse, which further proper education. Issues of human rights, intervention and transitional justice are all controversial to a degree and a wide variety of people have many divergent opinions, which fosters debate within the media and larger society. These types of debates expose people to more information than initially presented by the sensationalist campaign, subtly educating them and forcing them to analyse their ideological and philosophical positions. This can clearly be seen with Kony 2012. It presented an emotional yet largely inaccurate perspective of the Ugandan civil war, which allowed the media to dissect the issue with the help to experts. The increase in discourse allowed the inaccuracies of Kony 2012 to be corrected in a large, public forum and for alternative views about the conflict to be presented. Better, more nuanced awareness can, therefore, emerge from simplistic and sensationalist accounts of transitional justice/human rights issues. It is not a clear trade-off between no information and misinformation.

    3. Awareness in in of itself is not harmful. Knowledge of transitional justice issues is not inherently bad and neither is the immediate consequences of sensationalist campaigns such as raising money to stop the victimisation of women or rebuilding Indonesia/Thailand/Sri Lanka/etc after a devastating tsunami. All the problems you identified emerge from the implementation and execution of ideas by humanitarian aid workers, who (I think) often have preconceived ideas about the necessity and benefits of certain policies blinding them to the realities of situations. These harms cannot solely be associated with sensationalism in the media, and also can be mitigated through well-developed and thoughtful policies that encourage cooperation.

    It is for these reasons that sensationalism in the media about transitional justice and human rights does not provoke my dismay. Silence does.

    • mjbarnes1 November 4, 2012 at 4:46 pm

      Oh, should have prefaced that by saying I’ve never actually watched Kony 2012 and all my knowledge comes from the debate that it provoked so if I have fundamentally misrepresented the campaign, please let me know!

      • louisemcl November 6, 2012 at 8:56 am

        I agree with the comment above that you’ve raised many interesting points. I will also admit that I started to watch the Kony 2012 video and couldn’t get through it. But what I will say is that one of the big problems with Kony 2012, in my mind, is the way it catapulted one of the co-founders of Invisible Children, Jason Russell, into the public eye. Given how much he features himself in the video, I wondered how much they intended to make Kony famous, and how much they intended to make Russell and Invisible Children famous – were they taking advantage of a the terrible situation in order to gain notoriety?

        This became particularly troublesome when the media began to scrutinize Invisible Children’s operations and allegations arose of high operating costs, including extravagant travel costs for speaking tours and other promotional expenses. Meanwhile, donations poured in to Invisible Children after the Kony 2012 video went viral. Amy, you wrote in your post: “if the results do benefit the targeted population do the ends justify the means in terms of sensationalism?” But the problem for me is, does the Kony 2012 video from Invisible Children benefit the targeted population?

        Finally, as many critics noted about Kony 2012, there is a danger in appointing oneself to speak for others. I am curious why Russell appointed himself as a spokesman for this cause, and why he chose to feature himself so prominently in the Kony 2012 video, if the point was to bring public attention to Joesph Kony.

        • tags12 November 6, 2012 at 11:40 am

          I can definitely see the danger in speaking for others, but I also feel that there is value recognizing the leaders of organizations. I have no empirical evidence for that claim, but personally, I would feel more comfortable donating my own money to the Harlem’s Children Zone compared to another educational organization because of Jeffery Canada. I have seen him give talks, appear on TV shows, movies and the like; and because of this, the organization, to me, has a face and an individual who will be held accountable for its actions. I don’t see it as taking advantage of a terrible situation to gain notoriety as much as someone willing to take full responsibility and accountability for the organization’s decisions. The Invisible Children organization is more transparent with their financial statements than any organization I have ever come across. Their website has a full break down of expenses, financial statements for the last 5 years, and links to their IRS forms. This is without a doubt in response to the deserved criticism it received. By prominently featuring a single leader and organization they made themselves an easy target for criticism and fully accountable for the information in the video, which they have been fairly responsive to.

          I also question whether the video would have been as effective and popular if Russell’s story was not intertwined. I think the personal and simple storyline were major contributors to it going viral and keeping people’s attention span for the full 30 minutes.

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