Hooked on disaster

19th May 1995 at 01:00
News images present the developing world as a series of wars and famines, and its people as passive victims. Brendan O'Malley looks at the bigger picture. When I was a teenager I was asked to create a picture on the theme of Africa. I drew a skeletal figure sitting on a rock staring out across a flat barren plane that was scattered with the remains of guns and human beings. Ask a youth today what Africa makes them think of and they will probably say the slaughter in Rwanda.

The sad truth is that our consciousness of developing countries, especially those in which our country does not have an economic or political interest, is shaped mainly by media coverage of disasters, stories which are often distorted by out-of-context news and pictures.

In news terms, we are often told, the death of one Briton is equivalent to something like the deaths of a dozen Europeans, 30 Americans, 100 Japanese and 500 Rwandans. The result is that we only see stories on African countries when something really awful is happening.

But the pressure on space and airtime also means the communication of the story is compressed, like looking through a long telephoto lens, so that we see the immediate effects of, say the Ethiopian famine, in a stark image of a "victim", with the background lost. Focusing news on this narrow plane means all too often that an understanding of the underlying causes and long-term consequences are overlooked. The news values dictate that in any refugee camp the cameras will zoom in on Western aid workers sent in to sort out the problem, and because they can speak English they will also be the target of any interviewers.

The cumulative effect of these images is to constantly reinforce the idea that Africans are helpless victims saved by white people and that life in Africa is made up of one disaster after another.

But even within the coverage of disasters the compression towards the news angle is distorting. During the Ethiopian famine the recurrent images were of emaciated children with bones pushing through their skin. Yet when I visited some of the camps I was surprised to find that the vast majority of the refugees did not look like this. Though up to 25 of the 53,000 in one camp alone were dying each day, most of those died without reaching that stage of emaciation they succumbed to common ailments like chest infections, measles and dehydration from diarrhoea which their body's defences were too weak to fight.

On reflection, the wider message coming from the camp was not one of death but survival, not resignation but endurance. For as much a story as the deaths was the stoicism of the survivors, which could be seen in the way the symbols of their culture the faded patterns edging their tattered dresses, the bold plaits of their Mohican-style haircuts had survived the destruction of their way of life.

Four years of drought and no harvest had forced them to sell their possessions, slaughter their animals and abandon their homes. Many of them had to make painful decisions about whether to leave their old behind to die, as they began the long march in search of respite. Though there were some shots of this exodus, the media focus remained firmly on the "passive victims" rescued by Western aid. Even the charities faced a dilemma on whether to use such images to raise money for the aid effort.

Over the years some development bodies have become so concerned about the cumulative impact of press and television images that they have issued their own guidelines for the use of images to represent their work. Save the Children, for instance, warns that selecting images for shock value alone can be trivialising and reinforce stereotypes of people as helpless recipients of hand-outs. Instead more emphasis can be put on how Africans are taking action to stave off the effects of drought, for instance by foraging for wild food when the grain has run out.

More than that the agency seeks to promote images of people actively helping to develop their own community, whether it's bringing home the harvest or setting up their own village health network. The problem here, though, is that for the external media long-term development or just getting on with life is not news and deliberately promoting positive images smacks of propaganda.

An alternative approach is offered by the Development Education Association which blames part of the problem on the personal perspective of the photographer. It argues that local photographers are better able to represent their own people and has set up a directory of local photographers.

But both these initiatives are more likely to be taken up by people already working in development charities rather than by the press at large. Press and television cameramen and photographers need to become aware of these issues if their news images are to break out of the stereotypes.

One organisation trying to tackle this problem head on is the International Broadcasting Trust, which is producing a training video with the BBC called Can We Get It Right? to familiarise film makers with the kinds of unintentional racism and sexism they might be portraying.

Paddy Coulter, IBT's director, does not feel that showing the negative side of famine and war is a bad thing, since it is a worthy and valid news story. He prefers to look at the issue in terms of the narrow and broader picture. The IBT's main work is producing documentaries for television and education on international affairs which offer a wider take on the geography, issues and perspectives behind the news.

The problem is that over the past five years television channels, and the BBC in particular, have alarmingly cut the airtime given to such topics, especially during peak viewing time, by 40 per cent.

For my part, one sight from the famine camps will never leave me. Most of the thousands of tents were dull white, but one batch of orange ones had been shipped in. Within days small boys who had been wearing dust-coloured rags were running around dressed in bright orange T-shirts. As they played with their hoops made from empty sardine tins sent over as food aid, they provided a lasting symbol of the durability of the human spirit against all the odds.

International Broadcasting Trust, 2 Ferdinand Place, London NW1 8EE

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