Journalism in the New Age: Navigating the world of propaganda

Posted: May 14, 2015 in Crime, Dairy of a Freeman, Help Line, Metro
Tags: , ,
Kim Jong-un  ... The SUPREME Leader of North Korea

Kim Jong-un … The SUPREME Leader of North Korea

North Korea was in the news again and it wasn’t for Kim Jung Un’s state media issue image from a factory or orphanage visit. It was allegedly for devising new uses for a gun originally designed for shooting down enemy airplanes.

Though Kim wasn’t the first person to find scary uses for anti-aircraft guns (that distinction perhaps goes to the ingenious Arabs, who found in them a ready mate for the Hilux van), this post is bigger than reports of his most recent adventure. This post is about the major thrust of the North Korean narrative from all sides: propaganda.

As part of an interview panel last year, I got the chance to throw assessment questions at the candidates, who were mostly young graduates with some experience in cyber journalism and blogging.  One of these questions was: ‘what is the biggest news in the world right now?’

The idea was to gauge whether the candidates cared enough about the world around them to pause and engage with it. Unsurprisingly, considering the demography we were dealing with, most of the interviewees did know about their environment and were also able to navigate, to an extent, the constant flow of local and international news.

However, the story changed when we probed deeper, aiming to gauge what I call their propaganda perception skills. That very few passed that particular test didn’t come as a shock. If anything, it only affirmed how hard it has become to distinguish propaganda from real news.

Some analysts even say that the gap between propaganda and news has become so faint that every journalist, writer, and blogger is an unwitting accomplice. As such, every time we allow a bias that we’ve subconsciously developed as a result of our media influences to seep into and colour our work, we are helping propagate what could be a carefully planted propaganda message.

This fact was very much evident in the answers the candidates in our interview gave to the questions put to them, and this shows how much we are shaped by the media.

As a whole, most of the candidates, young people in their 20s and early 30s, pointed to the crisis in Iraq and Syria and the Scottish referendum as the major news stories in the world as at then, they, however, had little personal opinions about the news. When prodded, those who tried to voice opinions sounded like Fox News newscasters, regurgitative, with little sense of balance.

Since they were supposed to run what will be a major news site in Africa in a few months, their responses fell short of the required benchmark, which is for journalists to be able to effectively find their way in the international and local news landscape and have a clear understanding of how politics influences news reports. It may look like a tall order, but the truth is far simpler than that: understanding how the media, everywhere, works, grants a journalist the ability to sieve through the propaganda to get to the real news it garnishes.

For example, while our candidates knew about the crisis in Ukraine, most could not break through the reporting nuances of the media to get to the fact that the conflict resulted from a much wider conflict that stems from NATO’s expansionism and Russia’s efforts to keep it out of its sphere of influence. They also mostly believe that while Putin is a problem, Obama and the EU leaders are saints that are more interested in world peace. When we tried to point to Iraq, Libya and a couple of other countries where the west, not Putin’s Russia, had been the catalyst for the destruction of flawed but functional societies (in effect, whatever the western media accuse Russia of; their government has been guilty of, ten times over), it was a hard sell to some of the candidates.

The problem we noticed with our small group of interviewees is something that affects the general population.

Take Boko Haram and its bloody insurgency for example. While people rightfully note the bloody carnage that that devil’s spawn is spreading across northern Nigeria, journalists readily fall into the trap of wrongfully painting the group as mindless. Boko Haram, like most ideologically driven sects, is not mindless in its approach to insurgency. Boko Haram may have started out without a predictable mode of operation, but this is because it was mimicking of other insurgencies.

From Car bombs to suicide bombs, from beheading to planting flags in towns, from attacking military facilities to turbaning emirs and declaring Islamic caliphates, Boko Haram was looking towards and imitating the actions of the global Jihadist movement. Thus, its mode of operation is a combination of that of several like-minded insurgents. As such, to effectively report about Boko Haram, the writer/journalist must put this into perspective, and also recall the more benign start of the group and the fact that the Nigeria state (read, its police force) bears direct responsibility for the creation of the devil that Mohammed Yusuf’s sect became.

Most importantly, while a western journalist’s report may be shaped by national interest and the pressure from his/her employer, the views of a Nigerian journalist covering the same news should not in any way be shaped by such considerations. As such, when reporting the news of the Kim Jun Un’s recent brutality, balance means indicating that the news came via South Korea, a nation still effectively at war with North Korea and whose Intelligence agencies–widely attributed with this new information–has been proven to have lied about events in the North, including executions of Kim’s close circle, in the past.

The lesson here is that no news item should be viewed in isolation and that balance can only be achieved by studying the underlying causes and getting a little bit of the historical perspective.

With the arm wrestling currently going on in the world between the powers, the world should be looking to us for unbiased analysis, which we sadly can’t provide if we just copy and paste the one-sided narratives that parties in the conflict provide.

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