Saturday, June 28, 2008

kisch and stereotypes

For some time, I've been intrigued by the question why contemporary media so often follow and even strengthen stereotypes especially when it comes to covering other countries. (I did a small study once on how German newspapers wrote about Pakistan after 9/11, with results that were disillusioning: There was hardly anything in the papers except terrorism and dangers, and the image created was totally different from what I had experienced Pakistan to be like.) 
Is it because of the process in which journalists produce their work? The way manuscripts are edited and streamlined and reporters with deviant approaches don't even get a chance to start working because their editors will push them in another direction?
Or do the reporters limit their focus themselves? Are certain discourses (e.g. about "Islam") so powerful that one "automatically" sees the world in a certain way?

Reading some of the reporting done by Egon Erwin Kisch from the Soviet Union and China in the 1920s these days, I was struck how much journalism has changed over the last 80 years. Kisch was the German reporter of his time. A Jew from Prague who was equally fluent in Czech and German, he had (similarly to Franz Kafka) opted for German as the language he wrote in. After the First World War, he moved to Berlin and worked for German papers, traveling all over the world, then fled to live in exile after 1933. I find his pieces still interesting to read after all these years. His writing style is totally literary, i.e. he tries to be original in all his descriptions, inventing new words and images in almost every sentence. Another very obvious difference from most of today's journalists is how many random observations he includes in his articles.

When the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" ran a series about famous journalists five years ago, Jakob Augstein (himself the son of another journalist icon, Rudolf Augstein of "Der Spiegel") observed that today, much of Kisch's writings would be rejected by desk editors as literature, not reporting. Some of the texts would be regarded as not relevant enough; some of his writing (e.g. about Soviet Russia) is clearly partial, although Kisch always held up the ideal of "objectivity" - but he was a Communist and this shows; and Augstein also points out that Kisch was quite good at marketing himself. Is or was Kisch over-rated then?

Well, whereas it is certainly interesting to read Kisch with the eyes of the contemporary journalist, we could also take a look at today's journalism with Kisch in mind. How has it become so different? I think the biggest difference is the sheer amount of media exposure we have ourselves. From the desk editor to the reporter, we all know how this or that competitor has approached this topic we are doing now. We follow the news agencies and let them decide our agendas. We might then be looking for a slightly new angle and imagine we are doing something "different" - but have actually become much more cautious. 

And I believe this is how we all keep reproducing stereotypes, both the reporters and the desk editors. We believe that we have to leave out observations on the side, which are not relevant to "our story" (in fact, they might complete the picture). We think it is safer and easier to repeat set phrases and images (just take the bearded Muslim fundamentalists), instead of inventing our own language and imagery (it's the same with TV visuals). We have become less imaginative and less curious. I'm sure much of the output of our news media industry is totally boring for the consumers, and that's why new forms of communication like citizen journalism and blogs are becoming so popular.

Friday, June 27, 2008


The traditional distinction of "left" and "right" politics has become blurred, and many people tend to get confused as to where certain politicians stand ("New Labour", etc.). A relatively simple concept to replace the old one and to give you some orientation is the "political compass" proposed by the website of the same name. You take a short test and are then told your political position on a two-dimensional scale, both on an economic (still labeled "left-right") and on a "social" ("authoritarian"-"libertarian") axis. It's not bad though I somehow feel it doesn't do justice to all these flexible politicians who don't really care where they stand themselves. (They quote a "Times of India" article on the website according to which most Indian politicians refused to take the test when asked by the newspaper...) Anyway, it's interesting to see that all the European Social Democrats, and all the US presidential candidates including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, belong to the "authoritarian right" corner of the political spectrum. Myself I landed in the libertarian-left corner, though more libertarian than left. The Dalai Lama is somewhere close, according to the website. Pity that he doesn't stand in elections...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

online mobbing

A journalist colleague A works for B website here in Germany. When he rejected another colleague C's manuscript and asked him to make some amendments before publishing, C got upset. C happens to belong to a certain group D. As there are certain conflicts between groups D and E, A had been of the opinion that C's manuscript didn't reflect the viewpoint of E group well enough. So far, a normal story.
Anyway, C got the impression that A doesn't like D group, and that this was the reason for his behaviour. The next thing that happened was that C shared his version with some people of D group. Suddenly, certain websites spread the word that A was against group D. And whereas the conflict between A and C has long been settled, A continues to find claims that he is against group D at the top of the list whenever he googles his own name...
I find the story totally scary, but it's probably not that unusual, as media reports about "cyberbullying" from South Korea and the United States show - both cases are more serious than what happened to A. 

Nothing entirely new either - bullying and mobbing happen offline as well. Hopefully, with some legal reforms, there may be ways of handling the problem in future. In the meantime, better be careful...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

new media - new politics?

Barack Obama has created a website to fight rumours about him that are mostly spread on the internet. OK, maybe it's not really adequate and wise to label it a "smear" if people spread the word that Barack Obama is a Muslim (he is a "committed Christian", of course, according to his website) - but it clearly shows one thing: In American politics, blogs are considered influential. You cannot simply ignore them any more. I don't think this could happen in Europe yet - but in some parts of Asia, the role of the web in politics is even bigger. And I'm not even talking about places like China, Iran or Myanmar where blogs are one of the few ways to express your views at all. Consider Malaysia, where Jeff Ooi might be the world's first parliamentarian who was elected because he was a well-known blogger. Or South Korea, where the latest protests against US beef imports have been labeled "digital populism", according to the International Herald Tribune. High school students started the agitation first after discussing the dangers of US beef on an internet discussion forum...
The mainstream media and the government ignored them at first. But protesters stepped forward as "citizen reporters," conducting interviews, taking photographs and, thanks to the country's high-speed wireless Internet, uploading videos on their blogs and Internet forums.
But there's a flip side to their activism: It's easy to spread rumours and create panic in the web community. The IHT report gives an example:
One scientifically unproven claim that circulated on the Internet was that Koreans have a gene that makes them particularly susceptible to mad cow disease.
Interestingly, the activists even put pressure on the more moderate mainstream media in order to make their and only their version of the story heard:
Protesters...flooded companies with phone calls warning of product boycotts if they did not withdraw ads from the country's three main conservative dailies, whose editorials urged "reason and rationality."
I wonder how the papers can react... Maybe start an anti-rumour website like Barack Obama?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

some questions on tibet

Why is it that Tibetan protests get so much more attention abroad than the ones by Uyghurs in Xinjiang (where discontent with Chinese rule is at least as strong)?
If Tibet was a part of China at some point in history, does it mean it must remain one in future?
Aren't there maybe similar problems all over the region, with people from the overpopulated plains, from bigger ethnic groups, migrating to the mountains and marginalizing the "locals"... like in Bhutan, in Sikkim, from Bangladesh into Northeast India? What can be a fair solution for these cases?
And why indeed do people not talk about solutions?

There was an interesting article recently in Himal Southasian magazine, about possible ways to approach a solution to the Tibet crisis.

Monday, June 16, 2008


We should all be watching more documentaries... I finally managed to see one I've been wanting to see all the time - "Ironeaters" by the Bangladeshi filmmaker Shaheen Dill-Riaz. It was selected "best film" at Film Southasia '07 in Kathmandu and received several other prizes... and rightly so, for his portrait of the shipbreaking industry near Chittagong doesn't only have stunning images, and you learn so much about God knows what (society, life, ships...) - what I find most striking about Shaheen (there's one other documentary I've seen, "Sand and Water") is how he depicts people's lives with hardly any author's commentary. The poorest of the poor are not only given a voice here, they come across with dignity: Not just as "victims", but always as full human beings. I haven't quite seen that elsewhere.
Why can't we simply give voices to the ordinary people more often as journalists? Because we don't have the formats? Don't always have 90 minutes? Are too fond of telling our own stories? Or simply too lazy, or not modest enough to just listen?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

to begin with

Having watched Geert Wilders' film "Fitna" recently (online, of course), I was struck by how much attention it got. Why should anyone want to waste their time on something so badly argued, so badly produced? And yet, millions clicked on it and watched it (including me) - an audience he would never have had before the days of the world wide web. All the calls for banning the "movie" simply evaporated, as censorship has become technically impossible. If anything, the resistance only increased its appeal. Extreme viewpoints are everywhere on the web, just visit any discussion forum... And they seem to acquire a totally exaggerated importance, completely out of proportion with "real life". Even Al Qaida would be nowhere close to where they are without the internet. But wasn't the net supposed to connect us all, bridge all the gaps? We have the technology to connect people, but is it working? 

Apparently, the more traditional "global media" are also losing their capacity to integrate people across the globe. After the Muslim world started mistrusting CNN and BBC, the recent events in Tibet have shown that many Chinese, too, think the Western media are biased against them. Kai Hafez has claimed that media globalization is just a myth: More often than not, the media are only reinforcing our mutual prejudices. Satellites and broadband alone won't bring us closer to each other.

And yet, the world has become smaller in many ways. Dutch films do disturb people in Pakistan. We need to develop new ways of communicating with each other in this age of globalization, new levels of tolerance and respect - and eventually, new channels and forms for global democracy. Let's share ideas.