A while back, I reviewed Virgil Hawkins’s Stealth Conflict. In the book, Hawkins argues that the structure and organization of the media (among with other factors) lead to ignoring certain conflicts (stealth conflicts) while prioritizing coverage of others (chosen conflicts). The bottom line is that what makes a conflict chosen is not how serious it is, or how long it has been going on or even the numbers of death. Our media pay attention to conflicts that can fit in nicely packaged narratives that are familiar to Western audiences, where there is a clear moral tale to be told and where there is something in it for us (in addition to structural factors).
In this more recent post, Hawkins turns his attention to the “new media”, using the coverage of the current protest movements across the Middle East (chosen conflicts) as opposed to the virtual silence on Ivory Coast. Bottom line: not much difference:
“For audiences in the English-speaking West, one important ingredient necessary for media attention that was missing from the Cote d’Ivoire story was familiarity. This is not simply a matter of racial, linguistic or socioeconomic affinity – although this is certainly a major part of it. Cote d’Ivoire has rarely been covered in the past, so the public lacks the background knowledge and context to make sense of events there. Had exactly the same events happened in Zimbabwe, the reaction would have undoubtedly been very different. For more than ten years, Zimbabwe has been heavily covered (and Robert Mugabe thoroughly demonized) by the Western media.
Also, importantly, Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t quite fit into the ‘big frame’ of the times – the tool that helps us all put a particular news story into its appropriate ‘box’ and quickly make sense of it – like ‘communism’, ‘terrorism’, and now, ‘revolution in the Middle East’. Cote d’Ivoire could certainly be framed as a story of people rising up against an illegitimate government and fighting for democracy – it’s just that it is not happening in the Middle East (it in fact predated the initial Tunisian uprising). And if levels of media coverage to date serve as any indication, events in the Middle East are far more ‘important’ than those in sub-Saharan Africa.
Advances in technology have revolutionized our access to information about the world. If we actively search online, we can very quickly find out what is going on almost anywhere in the world. But for the vast majority of us who continue to rely on the news media (on or offline) to help us make decisions about what information about the world is important; it appears that very little has changed.”
This seems to validate the cyber-cranks like me (as opposed to the cyber-utopians) who thing that social media technologies are great and all, but they do not change regimes or political power dynamics. The processes through which conflicts end up stealth or chosen seem the same for “old” and “new” media. This is not surprising as these media do not exist in separate spheres but have high levels of interaction and overlap. And while African conflicts may pop up every once in a while on Twitter, these do not trend as much as the current Middle Eastern protests.
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