Typhoons and Shootings

Last week was a rare occasion for the Philippines, as the country saw massive exposure in news media that would be widely read or watched around the world. Unfortunately, this exposure came as a result of the tragic deaths of 8 foreign nationals at the hands of gunman Rolando Mendoza, whose bus hi-jack and subsequent hostage stand-off was broadcast live to millions of viewers as it unfolded. Whoever said any publicity is good publicity was really quite deluded – this event is more than likely to leave a lasting, negative impression of the Philippines in their own and other countries for years to come, in much the same way that news coverage of the floods last year in the wake of typhoon Ondoy have caused people to think of the Philippines solely as a country ridden by unmanageable natural disasters, or the news on ongoing civil unrest in Mindanao has caused people to consider the country to be a dangerous hotspot of terrorist activity. Local friends here considered the Philippines to have been greatly shamed by the incident.

Of course, its no revelation to say that popular news and media focus disproportionately on the “bad” – after all, this is what sells; it’s what people consider to be “news” and therefore want to hear about. But it’s worth considering while we read our papers or watch our TV bulletins the impact this disproportionate focus has on the countries (particularly “developing” countries) that inevitably end up with bad press. The photojournalist who led the street photography class I took early on in my placement explained that she left journalism because the major newspapers and magazines were only interested in photos of disasters and poverty in her country. She wanted the opportunity to show the world that there was much more than that to the Philippines, however, this is a hard task given the strength of stereotypes created by global media. For the Philippines if a positive picture is painted it’s invariably one of the cheery outlook of the population in the face of the huge problems they face – which isn’t really much better than the negative picture. It’s not just news media that’s the culprit either – the advocacy and funding campaigns of charitable organisations, academic books that discuss international development issues and even well-meaning travel bloggers all have a tendency to overplay difficulties, disasters and exoticism in the “developing world” in a way that can have a large impact not only on the way people from the outside see a country, but also on the way it’s own citizens do as well. I’m sure I’m guilty of this myself – after all, I spend a lot of time on this blog writing with a focus on cultural differences and development issues.

“Responsible” is a bit of a buzz word these days, applied to all sorts of things from tourism to banking to consumerism to pie. But while overuse brings a bit of a danger of diluting its meaning, I still think the need for responsible journalism has never been more apparent than in our current, “postmodern”, increasingly interconnected world. And this isn’t just about ethical guidelines for stalking David Beckham, or whether or not people should be exposed to distressing images of old ladies throwing innocent cats in rubbish bins. It’s about having some consideration for and understanding of the way that global coverage of international issues can impact on those issues, on development and on a country’s capacity to empower its citizens. The Philippines has its problems, of course, and its important to be honest about what they are. However, it’s also important to be clear that the Philippines is not just a “land of typhoons and shootings”, just as Africa, a continent that has suffered a huge amount of misrepresentation and stereotyping in popular media, is not (to coin a term from Wronging Rights) a “land of rape and lions”.

For those who are interested, this video – How Not To Write About Africa – makes the point far better than me.

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