Exchanging Ignorance

by Sola Osofisan

“Unfortunately, American television doesn’t tell you very much about anywhere else…”
– Chinua Achebe

Americans are a wonderful people. Okay, you can’t blame them for being self-absorbed like Narcissus in Greek mythology. Blame the Networks for that. Blame the TV news for placing huge round-the-clock mirrors right before their eyes. Mirrors are tricky things friend. They can keep you so pre-occupied, you’ll know nothing about the worlds beyond your shores.

You’d think the news managers, being citizens of a nation of immigrants, would be interested in other countries. Alas, that is far from reality. The news in America isn’t news. It’s a Broadway show! You can’t blame the American people for this though. They’re only human. Globally, people depend on their media to knuckle information about the rest of the world into easily understood and digestible slices. That means Americans have to depend on the ratings propelled splashfest labelled “news” by the Networks to get their impression of the rest of the world. That’s not good.

Blame the sensation factor on Hollywood. That’s what everybody does nowadays. (I’m a movie guy, so I won’t join the train). The movies and all their fantastic imaginings have so seeped into the psyche, even the newsman is busy packaging his content to have the greatest impact. It’s all about suspense now, atmosphere, climax! What do you call those aerial angle helicopter shots of non-events, the multi-lensed police car chases, the effect-filled poses in stormy weather…Welcome to Hollywood news, babe. It’s all about the drama.

Television news in many countries controls a frightening proportion of what people see and know and think. Not enough people surf the Internet or pick up the newspaper to get a broader (if not altogether better) perspective on things. In Nigeria, within the local limitations, a significant chunk of the newshour is devoted exclusively to happenings beyond Nigeria. Much of this news also get translated into local languages, so those who lack modern education, when they are not too hungry to turn a deaf ear, get informed about the world. That makes it possible for many Nigerians who travel out of Nigeria to be already familiar with the people, places and ways of the world.

The media in America, on the other hand, reports only America to America. When they do glance in the general direction of the rest of the world, it is a fleeting look that vanishes within a blink. And, much of that momentary aside is left on the floor of the editing room. The little that gets on air, a footnote to the news of the day, gives you the impression nothing positive ever happens in these countries. Ghana recently had a sports stadium disaster that was everywhere. The same Ghana, in spite of all odds, has made a lot of progress attributable to national discipline and focus. Ghana is the envy of many African countries today because of that. You will never hear that in the mass media in America. You’ll only hear the disaster is “the third and worst in Africa” in recent memory. Call it selective reporting.

There is selective reporting of news in all media houses worldwide. It’s how you trim down the deluge that assaults you daily. That process of elimination can also be the demon. Watch television for a day in America to monitor the percentage of airtime devoted to the current affairs of other nations (who also just happen to have residents in America). Why would they want to give a representational voice to issues that concern only a minority? Why would they want to waste expensive airtime on a people with no political clout or population to influence anything? Aside of mishaps natural and not so natural which make for the occasional gripping reality entertainment a la SURVIVOR, why would you want to report news from their countries?

It is saddening. So depressing you’d want to switch off the TV set. Could it really be that the continent is all bad news? Go to a website like Allafrica.com and the contrary is the case. The FIFA president just confirmed speculation that Africa – after all the discrimination – will be hosting the World Cup, the most prestigious sports events in the world, (way bigger than the “World” series!). The people of Zimbabwe said no unequivocally to the government’s attempts to short circuit the assembly that would produce a new constitution. In Abuja, it looks like the much vaunted Africa Union will be a reality after all. And somewhere on a street without a name, a market woman just gave a beggar his only meal of the day…Nobody died? Yes, so it isn’t news worthy. Can you imagine what it feels like to hear nothing but bad news all the time about the country you haven’t been to in a while? Does it get you thinking how safe are my family and friends?

Is this some unspoken conspiracy? No, just business as usual. News here isn’t about the American people. It’s about advertisers’ money. The news managers think their target market – the people who have the money to keep their stations afloat – don’t want to know about these extraneous things. And they’re doing the American people a disservice by keeping them in the dark about the rest of the world. They do them a disservice when they say Nigerian international soccer star, Jonathan Akpoborire’s ship was ferrying slave children across West African waters and now that those claims are being disputed, no one’s reporting the further findings. The millions who watched those early reports continue to believe the stories and spread it even further… Why would Americans continue to believe Africans live on trees? Oh, and we also invented AIDS and every other disease known to man. Was it Time Magazine that used the phrase “exchanging ignorance”?

It is important that people understand how news works. It isn’t like an act of God or the rainfall or sunshine, things that no human intermediary has any way of influencing. Every human being has an opinion – even when he denies it or it isn’t so obvious, and human beings sit down at editorial meetings to determine the thrust and coloration of news. They debate what perspective to approach the story from, sometimes before they get the whole picture. The video and story are edited to convey precisely what they want. Often, there is a strong-willed Managing Editor who oversees all the reporters and if he is myopic, incapable of unbias, unable to disassociate his personal sentiments from a story, that is the direction he will steer the minds who package news under his supervision (if he doesn’t think it is news, it gets killed). And most TV reporters are oh so glad to be in front of the camera advancing their careers they’ll report anything. I mean anything.

Time is also a factor. You have to get your story on air in the shortest time possible. That’s what accounts for the “breaking news” syndrome with the “sketchy details” that sends the rest of the world into the occasional paroxysm of confusion and misinformation. As you may know, many countries lack the resources to have their own bureaus and correspondents roaming the world, so they have arrangements to use stories from the CNNs of the world. Elsewhere, unconfirmed stories will not be let on the airwaves until sources have been carefully confirmed. In America, it is confirmed on air. Speculation is debated live, opinions expressed, and then a footnote says “these are unconfirmed reports…” How did it get on air? Viewers watch and pass it on as the Gospel according to the Almighty Network, and by the time it travels from mouth to mouth, there is no one to say otherwise.

The media in all societies is saddled with the onerous task of making available to the people it serves all the necessary information they need to function and grow as a society. That’s why news is also a social responsibility held in trust for the people by those in control. America isn’t one country. It is a nation of nations, a place where the groups, though unified in the face of international adversity, hardly do enough of talking or listening to each other. You think the blacks talk to the white? News programs can stimulate this sort of conversation. Anything to the contrary only promotes further fragmentation of America.

Nigerians in America who have children should pay attention to the kind of stories their children hear and believe. It is critical that the impressionable should get a balanced diet of information to foster the growth of a mind that can peer around the corner of controversy and sensation to see the true face of news. Take China for instance; can any good news come out of America about China? Iraq? Colombia? How do you think immigrants from those countries feel? Closer to home, the African American community wages an unending battle to change the stereotypical portrayal of their people everywhere. To correct the information imbalance, they encourage broadcasters within their own community to report their successes, their stories, if only to show their children that some good can indeed come out of their community. There is always another side to every story and fairness dictates we attempt to hear the other person’s angle.

There are other sources of information beyond the Networks – sources less motivated by the bottomline and ratings (news is just another product, after all, just like the toothpaste you pick up at the grocery store around the corner). People hardly seek out these other avenues of information because they just heard the Gospel from familiar faces, reporters the Networks have sold to them. We must develop a questioning mind…a mind also open to see the unknown heroes of the distant wars that appear mindless to us out here. We shouldn’t wait for the media in America to help us tell our stories. Just as significant, we shouldn’t let them be the only source for our children to learn about us, our people, our history. They will be given a skewed version of the story and we will be the ones to bite our fingers in regret.

There is hope that someday, we will have enough presence and resources in America to also dialogue with America. Yes, we are a people plagued by problems. That’s why they’re called First World and we are Third (as Fela once observed). But we are more than sicknesses and AIDS and wars and coups and disasters… We are family, nuclear and extended. We are laughter in the face of grim realities. We are backbones and dependabilities. We are neighbours and friends… Some cruel hand of fate combined with human fumbles have brought us to our knees today, but we hope because we are hope…resilient. That may not be obvious to the American managers of news shows, but that’s probably the greatest thing we are. Hope. That things will change. That things will get better, if not in our lifetime, for our children…HOPE. Tell the American people we are more than what you show on the news at 10.


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