According to journalist Elecia Chrunik, “The outcome of a [news] story is based on a myriad of decisions, and a journalist, good intentions or not, has to face thousands of decisions with every story.”1 Which details should be included? Which should be left out? What should be emphasized? What criteria should reporters use when making these decisions?
Nicholas Kristof has been criticized for focusing on the most negative stories about Africa and casting “a very downbeat light on an entire region.”2 Richard Dowden, author of the book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, argues, “The media’s problem is that, by covering only disasters and wars, it gives us only that image of the continent.”3 Kristof responds to this argument using the media’s coverage of Congo as an example:
My own take is that we in the news media and in the aid world can and should do a much better job providing context and acknowledging successes. Yet the problem surely isn’t that the news media have overdone coverage of the disasters. Congo is the most lethal conflict since World War II, costing about five million lives since 1998, and it has dragged on partly because journalists haven’t done a better job propelling it onto the international agenda. You’ll never persuade me that we’ve overcovered the slaughter in Congo—our sin is that we didn’t scream enough, not that we screamed too much.4
While the limited coverage of Congo does tend to focus on “disasters and wars,” these accounts do not present events in exactly the same way. We have selected four published accounts about the situation in eastern Congo written between June and November 2007. Reading 5, “Dinner with a Warlord,” is an editorial written by Kristof. The next two readings are blog entries written by the college student, Leana Wen, and teacher, Will Okun, who accompanied Kristof on this trip to Congo. The last article, “3-Way Battles Again Jolt Eastern Congo,” comes from the world news section of a prominent newspaper and would be classified as news reporting. After reviewing each text, consider these questions: What information does it provide? What feelings, ideas, and questions does it elicit? What impression of Congo does it imprint in your mind? What do you think the author’s purpose was when creating this piece?
While traveling with Kristof in Congo, teacher Will Okun did not only blog; he also photographed his experience. As he wrote in his winning application essay for the “Win a Trip with Nick” contest,
While America is only presented with images representative of Africa's poverty and misery, I will seek stories and photographs that will offer our young people a more comprehensive depiction of African people and culture. . . .I hope to produce photographs and stories that will emote pleasure and pride from the Africans themselves.5
In a video blog recorded at the end of his trip, Okun reports that he achieved his goal of capturing images that offer a different impression of Congo than that of the war-torn nation depicted by most news media. He hopes his images* “could be taken anywhere,” explaining,
The poverty in the countries that we visited is overwhelming. People can tell you about the poverty, but really until you see it firsthand it’s incomprehensible, and it is truly unfair for human beings to be forced to live in these types of conditions. But within the poverty, I was struck by the spirit of the people. So, despite all that poverty, I hope to show the students that I work with that we share the same Earth with these people and that what the students in Chicago have in common with the young people in Africa, what they share in common, is greater and more important than the differences between them.6
Four of the images Okun captured are included in Reading 9. When you look at them, what do you see? What do they tell you about Congo? What is universal about them? What feelings or memories do they call up for you?
Each of the texts included in this investigation was created by someone for a specific reason—to inform, to persuade, to galvanize, etc. Being able to identify the author’s purpose is an important component of media literacy. So is being able to access and synthesize information from a variety of sources. When we practice analyzing and synthesizing media, we hone a valuable civic skill. Renee Hobbs, author of the article “Building Citizenship Skills through Media Literacy Education,” agrees. She writes, “Some see media literacy as a citizenship survival skill, necessary to be a thoughtful consumer and an effective citizen in a superhighway-driven media age.”7
Why has the rise of the Internet made media literacy a “citizenship survival skill”? For one, we now have access to far more information from a range of authors. The Internet now hosts over 10 million blogs, in addition to social networking sites, citizen journalism websites, and video-sharing sites.8 Indeed, as the website Mediashift says about the growing role of “citizen journalists,”
Because of the wide dispersion of so many excellent tools for capturing live events—from tiny digital cameras to videophones—the average citizen can now make news and distribute it globally, an act that was once the province of established journalists and media companies.9
The blogs written by Leana Wen and Will Okun might be considered examples of citizen journalism.
This trend of citizen journalism is not limited to adults. Young people are also publishing their ideas about the world around them. Researchers on youth and digital media at the GoodPlay Project have found that “[f]ar from being passive consumers (or, as some fear, victims) of new media, young people are actively contributing to and defining the new media landscape through sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube, [and] Second Life as well as blogs and multi-player games.”10 While youth are clearly developing the practical know-how to navigate the media superhighway, these researchers ask if young people are developing an ethical sense regarding how they create and consume media. What does it mean to use media in a responsible way? How do we know what information to trust? What criteria should we use? Where do we learn how to make moral choices about the words and images we publish? These are some questions to consider as you explore the following texts and as you use media in your daily life.
- Elecia Chrunik, “Does ‘Caring’ Require Advocacy in Journalism?,” Center for Journalism Ethics, June 16, 2008,
- “Transcript: Caring About Congo," NOW on PBS, February 12, 2010.
- Nicholas Kristof, "Bright Continent," New York Times, May 1, 2009.
- Will Okun, “Winning Essay: Will Okun,” New York Times, April 29, 2007, accessed September 19, 2010.
- Will Okun, “Win a Trip: Will’s Reflections,” New York Times video, July 2, 2007, accessed September 10, 2010.
- Renee Hobbs, “Building Citizenship Skills through Media Literacy Education," Center for Media Literacy.
- Carolynne Burkholder, “Citizen Journalism: Blogging,” Center for Journalism Ethics.
- Mark Glaser, “Your Guide to Citizen Journalism,” PBS MediaShift, September 27, 2006, accessed September 19, 2010.
- “Research Profile: The GoodPlay Project–Overview,” 2007, accessed September 19, 2010.