(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?