Western news coverage

The white perspective

Cultural arrogance has long been a feature of Western journalism and it continues to flourish. But can journalists really describe the world from the perspective of a Yemeni housewife, a shepherdess in Bhutan or an elderly Senegalese fisherman? By Charlotte Wiedemann

At the end of 2018, Germanyʹs Der Spiegel magazine dropped a bombshell: CNNʹs Journalist of the Year 2014 Claas Relotius, a reporter on its own payroll, had committed journalistic fraud on a grand scale, making up stories and inventing protagonists. And yet, how quickly the dust has settled!

It seems to me that a number of important questions have not even been raised. What needs were the fabricated stories meeting? Why are extremely personalised accounts of what is happening in the world being showered with awards? And where is the line between fabrication and the regurgitation of habitual legends when the white gaze zooms in on other cultures?

As far as the aforementioned needs are concerned, the narrative about the boy who launched the war in Syria gives us at least part of the answer. Even before the scandal surrounding the fabricated stories of Claas Relotius at Der Spiegel broke, countless media took up the story of the fate of the schoolchildren who sprayed slogans on walls in the city of Daraa in 2011 (and were subsequently tortured). And always these stories zoomed in on one particular boy, so that the full drama of his story could be served up as a delectable, moreish piece of journalism. The name of the boy in question changed, but he was always to blame.

In 2013, Bild told the story of Bashir and said that shells are now raining down on Syria "because Bashir did what he did". Der Spiegel told the story of Mouawiya, who has been fighting "for atonement" for seven years. Because a "stupid boy's prank" caused half a millions deaths? What kind of lunacy is that?

What happened in Daraa in 2011 is well documented. The torture of schoolchildren surpassed everything of which people had hitherto thought the Assad regime capable; their parents' fight for justice resulted in mass protests. No one, including the West, stood by the civilian uprising. This is a hallmark of the Syrian tragedy.

It also points the finger at us. But, of course, no fingers point in our direction when the situation is portrayed as a senseless development and blamed on a child, either with real or imagined feelings of guilt.

Protesting against the Assad regime in April 2011 in Daraa, Syria (photo: AP)
Where the uprising against Assad began: what happened in Daraa in 2011 is well documented. The torture of schoolchildren surpassed everything of which people had hitherto thought the Assad regime capable; their parents' fight for justice resulted in mass protests. No one, including the West, stood by the civilian uprising. This is a hallmark of the Syrian tragedy

Fittingly for the fact that Assad has maintained his firm grip on power, an emotionally charged story of a child and his fate satiates the middle-class, very white desire to carry the weight of the evil world on our shoulders, albeit without consequences or responsibility. Oh what a dreadful place the rest of the world is!

Focussing on the individual; blocking out all complexity

This kind of dramatic composition, which does not seek to enlighten or explain, is all the rage at the moment. Focus on the individual, block out all complexity, trigger emotions, don't ask anyone to think. The blueprint for this style of journalism: explaining away Germany's austerity policy with an image of Angela Merkel.

As an attitude, as a perspective from which to view things, distance has increasingly been delegitimised in favour of a rhetorical immediacy – the alleged view from the inside – that Relotius had a great talent for faking. Is there perhaps a connection between the neo-liberal excesses of individualism, the breathless daily squeals of me-me-me when the high complexity of the rest of the world is hidden beneath personalised narrative structures? And where does the fabrication begin?

Putting what one has experienced, said and thought into a text always means distilling things into a new, reduced order. After all, it is not possible to portray "reality", the myriads of simultaneities. This is why it is so childish to claim that the slogan "telling it like it is" is the antithesis of fabrication. The path to the crime (i.e. the intentional fabrication of a story) passes through a sprawling antechamber of minor legal peccadilloes. Here in this antechamber, the text is trimmed, groomed and pimped until it fits the prevailing style. And the more foreign and unfamiliar the culture at the centre of the text is, the more silent the scruples.

Susceptible to hubris

The young generation of reporters is in many ways better equipped than my generation: these young reporters speak several languages; they are cosmopolitan, admirably courageous and have travelled widely. But perhaps this also makes them susceptible to hubris. And those who are not themselves susceptible are pushed into this myth of having what can only be described as a superhuman ability to understand everything and relate everything, regardless of the cultural context.

Spurring journalists on to hubris is cost-effective, much cheaper than maintaining a foreign correspondent or paying permanent local personnel in any given area of conflict, the translators and fixers that appear year for year on Reporters without Borders' annual lists of media personnel who have been killed – martyrs to the cause of Western media.

German soldiers in Koulikoro, Mali oversee the training of Malian army units (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Interplay of the media habit of viewing the inhabitants of a country in a certain way and the political and military strategies devised for that country: when it comes to Mali reports in the German media are told almost exclusively from the perspective of the German armed forces

When I revised my book "Vom Versuch, nicht weiß zu schreiben" (English: On the attempt to not write white) for a new edition six years after its first publication, I was astonished to see how little had changed in the intervening period. Yes, we now have Fake News and the constant emergence of new formats, but we also still have cultural arrogance, which continues to flourish in Western journalism.

From framing to fabrication

Modesty is rarely rewarded, unless it is staged modesty – as in the case of Claas Relotius – but not when it draws attention to cracks, holes and inadequacies. Instead, we reward an aesthetic of empathy that sometimes has colonial characteristics.

Can we really describe the world from the perspective of a Yemeni housewife, a shepherdess in Bhutan or an elderly Senegalese fisherman? As if we were inside their minds and hearts! As if we knew enough about these people, who are so different from us, to be able to put ourselves in their shoes! The Yemeni housewife, the shepherdess in Bhutan and the elderly Senegalese fisherman would never dream of doing such a thing. They respect boundaries. We do not, and that is a typical feature of white writing.

And then there is the interplay of the media habit of viewing the inhabitants of a country in a certain way and the political and military strategies that are devised for that country. When it comes to Mali, for example, reports in German media are told almost exclusively from the perspective of the German armed forces. But where does framing end and fabrication begin?

No one apologises for this to the people of Mali. Just like Der Spiegel has never apologised to Muslims in Germany for its Islamophobic cover images. The Islamisation of Germany was good for a cover years before the Alternative for Germany (AfD) was founded.

There is much talk at present about a post-colonial globalisation. Museums and ethnologists are beginning to see that they have to relinquish control and can no longer claim the central perspective. What is white journalism relinquishing? Nothing. It is ill-prepared for the future.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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