Friday, November 7, 2008

Kristina Riegert on the domestication of international news

Kalmar - Sweden. Kristina Riegert got her PhD in political science in 1998 from Political Science Department, Stockholm University. The title of her thesis, "'Nationalising Foreign Conflict': Foreign Policy Orientation at a Factor in Television News Reporting". She was a visiting scholar at the Institute of Communications Studies at Leeds University, and at Department of Culture and Communication, New York University 1999-2000, where she also taught. She has published two reports on the NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia: one on Information warfare and news management and the other on the British media coverage. Her research interests are globalisation, comparative television news, war coverage and propaganda, television's role in national culture and identity and national journalist cultures. She is now Assistant Professor, Södertörn University, Stockholm Sweden. Currently on a two-year fellowship with Swedish National Defence Academy. Riegert was very, very cheerful as she showed up. She was wearing her Barack Obama shirt “which I got on the 27th and I am so happy he got elected. Actually, I told my little daughter I was in love with him, and she told me not to say this because would be jealous. So I soothed her and reassured her that he won’t and that besides – he was in love with him too.” But Riegert goes back quickly to reality and says “we will have to wait and see what he can do.” Riegert was not here to talk about the intricacies of the American politics but rather about the domestication of foreign news in today’s media landscape. She starts out describing the earlier phases. “In the 70s there was the media imperialist theory, which was anglo-saxon dominant, and which defined newsworthiness according to certain criteria, such as drama, immediacy, simplicity, and balance. Actually, most of these values were promoting conflict narratives rather than being conductive to peace effort.” She reiterates with the decades that followed, “in the 80s and 90s, conglomerates stepped and therefore the need to make profit and financial sense. There was serious downsizing of the foreign news desk, and instead of reporters living in countries, they were simply parachuted upon need.” To Riegert, “this added more dependence of the local element as the reporters were clueless about the situation they were up against. And there was also therefore a heavier dependence on international news bureaus, with the end result leading to more international channels but with less diversification in content. Nowadays, blogs and alternative media are an interesting development but they still do not reveal breaking news to mainstream audiences.” The economical element comes back in her discussion and she assures that “economic pressures for cheap foreign news made it more difficult to deliver in-depth quality information. Instead of editorial content, the trend has become about budgeting and accounting and restrictions in financing now determine what correspondents will be able to cover. The amount of organizations expected to be on air has increased with the competition of news in “real time.”” Riegert speaks of other predominant trends going on currently, such as “the commercialization of conflicts which includes live tit-for-tat or he said/she said formats, and certainly the thrill of sexy bang-bang. Wars become like sanitized neat made-for-TV versions, something that resembles the movie “wag the dog.” Even the roots and consequences of the conflicts are being glossed over. Another way of achieving this is to personalize conflicts: Bush vs Saddam, or Milosovic vs Albright. Or giving them catchy funky titles such as “showdown in Bagdad.” The end result would be that all wars start to look alike and the public loses interest.” But since we live in very visual and picture-dependent world Riegert thinks that “news bureau sources and pictures are used to tell stories that local/national audiences can identify with. Countries such as Sweden and Denmark can have different stories on the same international news. Naturally, if a country is involved in a war, then the reporting is different and if the country is not involved then the international relations factor comes into play.” Other elements are also part of the visual equation, she continues that “the closer geographically the conflict is, the more resources are allocated for its coverage. Foreign policy also dictates the tone of voice in addition to the general identification of the “oppressor” and “victim.” Actually, pictures do not say a thousand words, the only say what you say they show.” The main purpose for any news channel being to disseminate a message to the largest possible audience, Riegert thinks that “media coverage doesn’t follow the elite view of the world otherwise there would be no need for propaganda.” “Warfare is a confusing environment in which the chances of rumors becoming true are high. Governments are losing control over the media and today anyone can have access to cheap digital media and can put anything on the net. This also challenges the traditional journalistic hegemony and analysis.” On the topic of how immediate news have become Riegert thinks that “real time news creates pressure on governments to respond before they agreed on a policy and got all the information. New media are used to create smoke-screens, test new policies, and to build support nationally as in the case of Al Horra.” Naturally, official information is as biased as it can come and so it is not unusual for information to be altered, manipulated, or edited to suit the end purposes, to this end Riegert refers to “spin-doctoring or what General Wesley Clark referred to as “bits of the truth” which suits smart and sophisticated strategies, whereas authoritarian regimes tend to rely on intimidation and threats.” “I will also refer to Jamie Shea, NATO’s head of information, who suggested to “occupy the space.” You know, be present there, everywhere, blocking it from someone else. If something is not going right, try to burry it in the middle of something more positive. In addition, you have to interpret information in the best possible light that would suit you. It is known that statistics have a “factual” aura around them, so use them to your advantage as they emphasize credibility. Do not stop rumors if they are to your advantage.” Riegert continues with me more rules such as “demonize the enemy, use emotions, give analogies to previous tragedies as frames of references, use a heroic language which always impresses.” Naturally, as the market for global market for international news is broadened to include the internet, certain consequences become inevitable. In addition when the broadening includes the advent of new satellite channels from the Arab world the equation gets even muddier. The third Gulf War, or the invasion of Iraq, certainly demonstrated some of those. “There was a battle for news credibility. Previously the flow of information was north to south, suddenly there was a counterflow of information to the Anglo-Saxon international news.” Interestingly, since the BBC is the reason behind Al Jazeera in terms of recruitment and previous training, Riegert argues that “Al Jazeera claims to have use the Western ideals of journalism such as balance, transparency, immediacy and independence from government. Al Jazeera saw the horrible human costs of the war while Anglo-Saxon channels saw a little sanitized war where a cute little blonde by the name of Jessica Lynch was “rescued” by US soldiers.” Riegert goes on in her rhetoric to expose the point that “even suffering is also political. Martyrs need a stage otherwise they are just victims. In the end there is no such thing as “just the facts” because they can only be judged within their context. Now there is a serious danger of the development of – not a common world stage – but rather of micro-public spheres whose realities never meet.” Naturally, the Western ideals of journalism have dominated the scene for such a long time and they were never put to doubt, but today Riegert puts them to the test and asks if “they are really necessary. Is immediacy so important that one ends up with a cumulative series of wrong facts? What about balance? What is the presence of two versions of the same event is not enough to explain it? What if there are more than two sides? Independence from governments does not mean much if one’s routine is only to report the official statements that are being released. And truly, in terms of newsworthiness, it is easier to show the conflict and drama rather than peace negotiations.” And whereas ideals, no matter how flawed, are interesting, it is also crucial to go back to the ground to look for answers, therefore Riegert reiterates, “we can access different transnational public spheres to find different versions of reality, however there are very few of us who have the time, the money and the logistics to choose.” In terms of consequences, the domestication of international events, has lead – according to Riegert – to “scanty news coverage of those parts of the world that the political, economic and cultural elites are not interested in. Not only is the coverage scanty, but it is generic since not provided with enough logistic resources. In addition, there is now one-sided self-perpetuating news coverage of a certain country when the country is at war.” Living in such globalised contexts has also led to a new transnational visibility, whereby Riegert asserts that “CNN has called the French unrests in the suburbs in 2005 the “French intifada” which paved the way for the suburban voices to be heard on television. Something that would not have happened has the problem not been globalized.” As a matter of fact, the scenario of events has become so important that “governments and other actors are starting to formulate strategies according to “how will this look in the media.” Naturally, there is a difference of the reality of an event and its portrayal in the media.” “News do not tell about everyday life” she reiterates, “they tell about the exceptions to everyday life that include drama. As journalists, we should develop our own codes of ethics in response to the consequences we are seeing, we will always fall short but we should have such ideals.” But Riegert concludes on a positive note and says “but today Obama has won. So there is hope. I am now in my “hope” phase. So good things are bound to happen.”
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