Media as mirror to the world

Autor: Ryszard Kapuściński
źródło: Stockholm national awards for journalism
data publikacji: 1998-11-19
To what extent do the media reflect the real state of the world? With the new technologies turning the world of journalism on its head and paving the way for the creation of massive media groups with global ambitions, the question is now more relevant than ever. Instantaneity and direct reportage have transformed the business of journalistic inquiry, and the profit imperative has replaced notions of civic responsibilities. But in many parts of the world – for instance Iran, Burkina Faso and Algeria – there exists another journalism that is more concerned with the values of truth and rigour.
by Ryszard Kapuscinski

In debates about the media these days too much attention is paid to technological problems, to the workings of the market, competition, innovations, the nature of the reading public, and not enough to the human aspects. I am not a media theoretician. I am a simple journalist, a writer who for more than 40 years has devoted himself to gathering and processing information (and also to consuming it).

My first observation has to do with the scale of the thing. To say, as is often said, that „the whole of humanity” live their lives by what the media do and say is an exaggeration. Even when events such as the opening of the Olympic games draw audiences of up to two billion worldwide, these still represent only one third of the population of the planet. Other large events (football world cups, wars, marriages and funerals of famous people) are widely broadcast on television but are watched by barely 10% or 20% of the human race. These are huge masses of people, but they are not the whole of humanity. Hundreds of millions of people have no contact with the media. In many parts of Africa, television, radio and even newspapers are non-existent. In Malawi there is only one newspaper; in Liberia there are two, fairly mediocre as it happens, but no television.

In many countries TV only broadcasts for two or three hours per day. And in some of Asia’s vaster regions – for instance in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia – there are TV transmitters but the people have no sets able to receive the programmes. During the Brezhnev era, in the great expanses of Soviet Siberia, the authorities did not bother jamming radio stations from the West because the lack of radio sets meant that nobody could listen to them anyway.

A large part of humanity still lives outside of the influence of the media and has no reason to worry about media manipulation or the bad influence of the mass media.

In many countries, particularly in Latin America and Asia, the only function of television is to entertain. You find TV sets in bars, restaurants and hotels. People go to the bar for a drink and to watch TV. And it would not occur to people that this medium should be serious, or might have an educational or informational function. Most Africans and Latin Americans do not expect television to provide a serious interpretation of the world, any more than we would expect such a thing from a circus.

The great revolution in new technologies is a recent phenomenon. Its first important consequence has been a radical transformation in the world of journalism. This takes me back to the first summit of African heads of state, held in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) in 1963. Journalists arrived from all round the world. There were around 200 special correspondents and reporters from the major international newspapers, press agencies and broadcasting authorities. There were film crews recording the event for cinema newsreels. But there was not a single TV crew. Everyone knew everyone else; we all knew what each other was doing, and some of us were friends – genuinely top-class writers and real experts in the major international issues. When I think back – and this is not in a spirit of nostalgia for some Golden Age that never existed – that summit feels to me like the last big meeting of reporters of the world, the end of a heroic era in which journalism had been considered as a profession reserved for the best, a high vocation, something noble to which the people concerned committed themselves fully and for life.

Since those days everything has changed. The search for news and its distribution have become a practical workaday occupation in all countries, involving thousands of people. Schools of journalism have sprung up, bringing new entrants into the profession year after year. This is another world. Once journalism was a mission, not a career. Today there are countless people practising journalism who feel no identification with the profession, let alone deciding to devote their lives to it. For some it is a kind of hobby, which they could abandon at the drop of a hat in order to do something else. Many of today’s journalists could work in an advertising agency tomorrow, or become stockbrokers the day after…

The new technologies have brought about a proliferation of the media. What are the consequences of this? The main outcome has been the discovery that news is a commodity, whose sale and distribution can generate large profits. In former times the value of news moved within different parameters, in particular the search for truth. It was also the stuff of political struggle. The memory is still fresh of students in the days of communism burning copies of party newspapers in the streets and shouting: „These newspapers are all lies!” Today all this has changed. The price of a piece of news depends on demand. What counts is sales. A news item will be deemed of no value if it will not interest a large section of the public.

The discovery of the commodity aspect of news has sparked an inflow of big capital into the media. In major press enterprises the idealistic journalists, those gentle dreamers in pursuit of truth who once ran our newspapers, are now often replaced by businessmen.

The change is evident to anyone who visits the head offices of any of the various media. In the old days newspapers and broadcasters occupied second-rate premises and had offices that were cramped, dark and badly arranged, swarming with scruffy, impecunious journalists and surrounded by mountains of untidy files, newspapers and books. Today when you visit the offices of major television companies, you find sumptuous palaces, all marble and mirrors. The visitor is ushered in by well-groomed receptionists down long carpeted corridors. These palaces are now the seat of a kind of power that was once enjoyed only by state presidents and heads of government. That power is now the prerogative of the owners of the new media groups.

The market rules

Since its transformation into a commodity, news has ceased to be submitted to the traditional criteria of checking for authenticity or mistakes. It is now governed by the laws of the market. This is the most significant of all the developments that have affected the domain of culture. As a consequence, the former heroes of journalism have been replaced by a mass of media workers who are more or less anonymous. The terminology used in the United States is indicative: the word „journalist” increasingly tends to be replaced by the term „media worker”.

The world of the media has exploded to such an extent that it has become like a self-sufficient entity, living for itself. The internal wars between media groupings have become more intense than the wars in the world outside. Major teams of special correspondents sweep the world. They move as a pack, in which each journalist keeps a close eye on what the others are doing. You have to get your news before the person next to you. Getting your scoop of a matter of life or death. This explains why, even when several major events are occurring simultaneously in the world, the media tend to cover only one: the one that has attracted the pack.

On more than one occasion I have been part of that pack. I have described the experience in my book The Soccer War (1) and I know how it works. The crisis sparked in 1979 by the taking of the American hostages in Teheran was a case in point. Although in practical terms nothing was happening in the Iranian capital, thousands of special correspondents from all over the world remained in the city for months. Several years later, during the 1991 war, the same pack shifted to the Gulf, even though there was nothing they could do on the spot, since the Americans put a ban on anyone getting close to the front. At the same time appalling things were happening in Mozambique and Sudan, but they received little coverage since the pack was in the Gulf. A similar thing happened in Russia with the coup d’état of December 1991. Although the important developments, the strikes and demonstrations, were taking place in Saint Petersburg, the world knew nothing about them because the world’s correspondents did not budge out of the capital, in the expectation that something was bound to happen in Moscow, whereas in fact the city was completely calm.

The new technologies, particularly mobile phones and email, have radically transformed relations between reporters and their editors. Previously newspaper correspondents and reporters for the press agencies and TV channels had a relative degree of freedom and could follow their own intuitions. They could hunt out news, check it, edit it and format it. Nowadays, and increasingly so, they have become pawns to be shifted to various places around the world by an editor sitting in an office that may be on the other side of the world. The editor, for his part, has news coming at him from a whole range of sources (continuous news channels, agency despatches, Internet etc) and thus has his own assessment of the facts, which may be quite different from that of the reporter covering events on the spot.

Sometimes the editor will not even wait until the reporter has finished his work. The only thing left for the correspondent then is to confirm the editor’s notion of what is going on. Many reporters have become scared of researching the truth for themselves.

A friend of mine was working in Mexico for various US television channels. I met him in the street as he was filming clashes between students and police. I asked „What’s happening here, John?” Without stopping filming he replied: „I don’t have the faintest idea. I just get the shots. I send them to the channel, and they do what they want with them”.

The ignorance of special correspondents on events that they have been sent to cover is sometimes astonishing. During the August 1981 strikes in Gdansk, where the Solidarity union was born, half the journalists coming to Poland to cover the events could not even have identified Gdansk on the map. They knew even less about Rwanda at the time of the massacres in 1994. Most of them were setting foot in Africa for the first time and had landed directly at Kigali airport – brought in on planes chartered by the UN and barely even knowing where they were. Almost all of them were ignorant of the causes and reasons behind the conflict.

But the blame for all this does not rest with the reporters. They are the victims of the arrogance of their bosses and the media groups. A cameraman from a major US television company recently exclaimed: „What more can they want from me? In one week I’ve had to film in five countries on three separate continents.”

This metamorphosis of the media raises a fundamental question: how are we to understand the world? Up until recently we learned our history from the heritage of knowledge that our ancestors left us and from what archives contained and the historians uncovered. Today the small screen has become the new (and virtually sole) source of history, distilling the version conceived and developed by television. Since access to relevant documents is difficult, the versions of history circulated by TV, at once both incompetent and ignorant, are imposed without our being able to contest them. The most striking example of this phenomenon was perhaps Rwanda, a country that I know well. Hundreds of millions of people saw the victims of the ethnic killings, set alongside commentaries which were for the most part completely erroneous. How many of those viewers filled out what they saw on their screens by consulting reliable books about Rwanda? The danger is that the media are far easier to consume than books.

Civilisation is becoming more and more dependent on versions of history dreamed up by TV – a version which is often false and without foundation. With the passing of time the mass viewer will come to know only a version of history that has been „telefalsified”, and only a tiny minority of people will be aware that an alternative, more authentic, version of history exists.

Rudolph Arnheim, a great theoretician of culture, had already predicted in the 1930s, in his book Film as Art (2) that human beings would come to confuse the world perceived by their senses and the world interpreted by thought, and would believe that seeing is understanding. But this is untrue. Television, in Arnheim’s opinion, would be one of the more rigorous forms of research feeding our understanding. But it could as easily make our minds lethargic as enrich them. He was right.

The confusion, generally unconscious, between seeing and knowing, and seeing and understanding, is used by television to manipulate people. In a dictatorship censorship is used; in a democracy, manipulation. The target of these assaults is always the same: the ordinary citizen. When the media talk about themselves, they conceal the basic problem behind the form; they substitute technology for philosophy. They discuss how to cut, how to edit, how to print etc. They talk about problems of layout, or databases, or the capacity of hard disks. They do not concern themselves with the problem of the content that they are about to cut, edit and print. The problem of the messenger is replaced by that of the message. As Marshall McLuhan regretted, the messenger has a tendency to become the content of the message.

Take the example of world poverty, undoubtedly the number one problem of the late 20th century. How is it treated by the major TV channels? The first manipulation consists in presenting poverty as synonymous with the drama of world hunger. As we know, two thirds of the world live in poverty as a result of the unequal distribution of the world’s wealth. Famine, on the other hand, appears at certain moments and in very precise locations. As a drama it is usually locally circumscribed. Most of the time it is caused by cataclysms such as drought and flooding, as well as by wars. One might add that there are mechanisms for fighting hunger, in the sense of sudden unforeseen disasters, that are relatively effective. In order to fight famine, we use the food surpluses that are available in the rich countries, and we send them in large quantities to the places where they are needed. What we are shown on our screens is international operations in the fight against starvation, such as in Sudan and Somalia. But not a word about the need to eradicate the endemic and generalised state of world poverty.

The second stratagem used by the manipulators of poverty is its presentation in programmes on geography, ethnography and tourism, or in others presenting „exotic” parts of the world. In this way poverty comes to be associated with the exotic, and television passes on the message that the places most affected by poverty are the exotic regions. Seen in this perspective poverty comes to be seen as a curiosity, almost touristic. Such images are particularly common on themed channels such as Travel, Discovery etc.

The final ploy of the manipulators is to present poverty as a statistical fact, a humdrum reality of the everyday world. Such a conception of poverty makes it seem somehow eternal. Human beings need no longer see it as a threat to civilisation; it becomes something that we just have to learn to live with.

Let us return to our initial question: do the media reflect the real world in which we live? They do, but unfortunately in ways that are only superficial and fragmentary. They focus their energies on presidential visits and terrorist attacks, but even these seem to generate little interest. Over the past four years the audiences for TV news on the three main channels in the US have fallen from 60% of all viewers to a mere 38%. Of the topics presented, 72% are local in character and deal with violence, drugs, assaults and crime. Only 5% of their news output is devoted to news from other countries, and many of them do not even manage that. In 1987 the American edition of Time magazine devoted 11 of its cover stories to international topics; ten years later, in 1997, there was only one. The selection of news is based on the principle „the more blood there is, the better it sells” (3).

We live in a paradoxical world. On one hand we are told that the developing means of communication have connected all parts of the planet into a global village; on the other, there is less and less space for international issues in the media. They are overshadowed by local news, sensational headlines, gossip, personalities and the whole gamut of news-as-commodity.

But to be fair, the media revolution is currently in full spate. It is a recent phenomenon in human civilisation, too new for it yet to have produced the antibodies necessary for combating the illnesses that it produces: manipulation, corruption, arrogance and the primacy of pornography. The literature on the nature of the media is often highly critical, sometimes implacable. Sooner or later this criticism is bound to influence the content of the media, at least to some extent.

Furthermore, we should recognise that many people sit down in front of their TVs because they want to see exactly what is on offer. In the 1930s the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset wrote a book, The Revolt of the Masses, in which he defined society as a collectivity of people satisfied with themselves, and with their tastes and choices.

The world of the media is a world unto itself. It operates at several different levels. Alongside the „dustbin media” there are some which are really excellent; there are marvellous television programmes, excellent radio programmes, and remarkable newspapers. For anyone who is really looking for honest news and in-depth analysis based on solid understandings, there is no shortage of quality media. Sometimes the difficulty is in finding the time to absorb everything that is on offer. Often the attacks on the media serve only to justify our own passivity and state of lethargy.

And nobody can deny that in the world of newspaper journalism, radio and TV there are highly talented and sensitive journalists, people who value their peers, and who relate to our planet as an exciting place that is worthy of being analysed, understood and saved. Most of the time these journalists work in conditions of self-denial and they do it with enthusiasm and a spirit of sacrifice. They shun easy answers and a life of comfort, even to the extent of putting their personal safety at risk. They do this with the sole aim of bearing witness to the state of the world in which we live. And the multitude of dangers and hopes that it contains.

(This article is based on a speech given by the author on 19 November 1998, on the occasion of the Stockholm national awards for journalism, Stora Journalistpriset)