Media evolved, audience subjectified

By Roger Hollands

Last Thu. Oct. 24, John Stackhouse, Globe and Mail foreign editor, spoke at the U of C on the relationship between the public’s disengagement from issues of foreign development and the evolution of media agencies into institutions which rely upon the subjectification of their audience for survival.

“The post-modern media sees the world through a prism, which is not really a prism but a mirror,” said Stackhouse referring to how media portrays international aid issues. “We don’t see them as part of our world.”

Stackhouse argued that the media is reluctant to cover issues such as the establishment of peace in the Congo, because of the relatively static nature of these events. Development issues cannot compete for coverage in the emerging world of fetish journalism because they are both complex and subtle.

“We also prefer the negative–it’s emotive, dramatic change,” Stackhouse explained. “The media is only a mirror of our subjective society.”

Historically, poverty issues have taken a back seat to war, crime, politics, and economics.

“The plague of 1348 caused poverty to affect everyone,” explained Stackhouse. “It was a political, economic and social burner of an issue [as a result of which] the poor were enumerated.”

Stackhouse also discussed how the development of media companies into autonomous institutions affected the way that the poor are represented.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the goals of the media coincided, to some degree, with those of emerging development agencies. An example is the role that the East India Company played in the popularization of India’s social and political situation.

“After the war [World War II] the media moved beyond corporate ownership,” explained Stackhouse. “Media and development were moving away from the centre.”

The next change in the relationship between media and development agencies came with the televisation of George Harrison’s fundraiser for Bangladesh in 1972.

“This turned millions of eyes toward Bangladesh,” explained Stackhouse. “Development, be-cause of technology, began to follow media.”

Harrison’s popularization of the poverty in Bangladesh marked the beginning of the era of instant enfranchisement.

“On any given day, what the media chose to cover was the famine,” said Stackhouse. “TV and computers re-create events in ways that they never really existed. Television is a method of forgetting.”

The consequence of instant enfranchisement is the subjectification of the viewer. Issues relating to development take on relevance only in the way that they apply to the viewer. Examples are the “adopt a child” infomercials that focus on the viewers’ responsibility. Although these programs raise a lot of revenue they do little to raise public awareness of the issues of international poverty and development. Rather they skew the public’s perception of poverty by portraying development in terms of their own contributions.

“These are known as remote control ads. It creates the image of remote control charity,” suggested Stackhouse. “Development is about you!”

To Stackhouse, compounding the media’s amoral treatment of development issues is the recent reduction of foreign correspondence faculties within media agencies. Wire agencies, such as the Associated Press, further constrict the flow of information on poverty because they are forced to research stories that will sell in New York as well as New Delhi. The result is that these agencies end up subscribing to the lowest common denominator.

Stackhouse contends that the media will begin to cover these issues only if the public demands it. The public have demonstrated that they are indifferent to a change to this system.

“[As long as] we are disengaged and ignorant, the poor remain unknown and unnamed.”

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