Viewing Habits and Perspectives

May 10, 2008 • Ethics and Quality, Public Relations • by

St. Galler Tagblatt, 12.04.2008

We all prefer to see what we would like to see. Tibet is in a truly pitiful position. China is evil and giving Tibet a hard time. How true! At least that’s what the words and pictures are telling us. But can we really go on like this?

False Images

China’s state agency Xinhua is keeping a close eye on things, shouting to the world what viewers everywhere have seen but weren’t supposed to see: falsification and manipulation! Take, for example, Swiss TV news programme “10 vor 10”, where images of riots and street battles between exiled Tibetans and security forces in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu were broadcast– however these images were presented as if they were coming from Tibetan capital Lhasa. Due to an internal mix-up, as the broadcaster was quick to admit the error apologetically on its website. These things happen, don’t they?

And apparently they happen everywhere. The video images from Nepal were presented as “Tibetan” on other TV stations also, as were photos taken in Lhasa in which erroneous contextual information was provided.

In reality, no journalist knows exactly what’s going on in Tibet right now. Although, they all know what they want to show their readers and viewers: stones, blood, demonstrations and the police. Because this makes the world look the way we see it – the way we would like to see it, perhaps. Pictures have a much more enduring effect than words – everyone knows this, and everyone exploits it, for their very own purposes, of course. China expelled foreign correspondents from Lhasa to secure as much control as possible over which images leave the country, and which ones don’t. Western media, responded to China’s communication boycott by intensifying their coverage of the looming Beijing Olympic Boycott.

A Case in Point: Sochi

The media coverage of certain events seems to be increasingly concerned with external aspects only, mostly leaving out the background information integral to a genuine understanding. This is true in several ways.

First example: the conflict between China and Tibet which is unfolding against the backdrop of the upcoming Olympiad may well serve as a case study, to be used in preparation of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. For this resort city is located near the border to Abchasia, a country that for years has been striving for the international recognition of its independence from Georgia. The region, in other words, is one where things are beginning to change.

Viewing the World from Home

The second example is not so much about the internal aspects of specific topics, but of specific media companies. People who watch the world from the comforts of their own home often do not have too keen an eye for detail – a fact, foreign correspondents know only too well. This is why they sometimes have to resort to all kinds of trickery in order to push their stories through the eye of a needle, which their editorial offices at home often represent. “Stories about poverty and misery in Africa only sell during the Christmas season. During the rest of the year, only reports featuring violence and explosions are in demand – nothing else”, an Africa correspondent bemoans the situation. “My colleagues at home seem to think they see things more clearly than we do.” They put more faith in news agencies than individual reporters, for only what appears on the news tickers of the world may ever rise to the rank of a “genuine” media topic.

Only the News Agencies Count

For a long time, people turned their backs to the things that were going wrong in journalism. Although recently, during the South German Conference of Journalists in Mainz (Süddeutscher Journalistentag), some people started making waves. The spokesman for this “movement” is German TV reporter Ulrich Tilgner, who lambasted the increasingly superficial coverage of foreign affairs, a criticism that many other journalists support. During the conference, Tilgner told the audience that he used to work for different news agencies and described how, whenever he wanted to put a specific topic on the map, he simply had to type in a few lines about it and send the story around the world, via the news tickers. After which he just had to wait. Not before long, people called him up, asking whether the topic in question wouldn’t be ideally suited for an in-depth report…

Neutrality, but within Limits

Tilgner intends to leave his station, German public service broadcaster ZDF, in May 2008 which will mark the end of a 26-year collaboration. His goal is to work mainly for Swiss television, not least because Switzerland tends to be “more neutral” when covering foreign countries than Germany, whose troops are stationed in different parts of the world.

Which brings us to a third example: neutrality reaches its limits whenever vital interests are at stake. In Switzerland, as elsewhere, the media are willingly serving as a mouthpiece for any politician threatening to boycott the upcoming Summer Games. While at the same time they do their best to avoid taking a clear position on the matter, even though they are affected just as much. Would any Swiss newspaper, for political reasons and completely based on its own decision, go so far as to publicly renounce covering Beijing 2008? Would Swiss television? These are questions which remain widely unasked.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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