Storytelling and Beyond: Contextualization of the News

Written By Olivia Rose Phillips

Few, if any, events in 2020 have garnered more media coverage than the death of George Floyd. Mr. Floyd, a forty-six-year-old black man detained for allegedly passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill, was killed when a police officer held a knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and six seconds during the detention. A passerby filmed the incident and the video was dispersed on social media. Mainstream news then commenced twenty-four coverage of the death and its aftermath.

Unquestionably, Mr. Floyd’s death propelled the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and around the world. The movement has perpetuated significant conversation regarding the nature and degree of the systemic racism permeating current social structures. This conversation has prompted real change. To cite a few examples, police forces are being restructured, racially insensitive statues are being dismantled, and school districts are being more aggressively desegregated.

The full extent to which media coverage of his death will contribute to combating systemic racism can only be discerned with time. However, what we can know now, based upon lessons from previous media coverage of significant human rights issues, is that the most impactful and positive change will occur only if the media reports beyond the superficial and contextualizes Mr. Floyd’s death. This article will discuss three previous instances in which the media covered stories superficially rather than delving deeper and exposing root causes of the reported events. Media failed to transcend simple story telling, missing an opportunity to effectuate lasting, positive change. 

The Death of Jamal Khashoggi

In 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate. Both Turkish and UN investigators found the Saudi government responsible for the murder of the journalist, who was known for criticizing a Saudi government intent on reversing progress made for women and minorities. Coverage of the murder did expose important issues and effect some positive change. It informed the public that despite Saudi Arabia’s advancement in human rights, serious and extensive violations still existed. Coverage also highlighted injustices taking place within the Saudi government, inspiring CNN and two Washington lawyers to petition the International Criminal Court to investigate Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the murder.

While five government officials were sentenced to death for Khashoggi’s murder, those with intimate knowledge of the crime do not believe the actual perpetrators were punished. A murder was covered by the media, but the coverage did little more than scratch the surface of a much bigger story. What threat did Khashoggi pose which was so great as to compel his murder? What were, and are, the root causes of the human rights violations Khashoggi sought to expose at the expense of his life? Notably, little coverage examined whether the Saudis met the ‘international standards’ for investigations. For example, UN allegations that the Prince was involved were only superficially investigated. Yes, journalists covered the murder, but the media did not report its context.

Skateboarding in a Warzone and Female Empowerment

In 2019, the documentary Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) was released. The film shared the story of young Muslim women partaking in a ‘masculine’ and ‘western’ sport, thereby behaving contrary to gender and societal norms. The media largely reported the work as an ‘empowerment’ piece. The film was interpreted as an effort to translate the skateboarding into female, Muslim ‘empowerment’. Perhaps the interpretation was a response to the propagated portrayal of Muslim women as helpless and in need of saving.

The media’s superficial reporting of the documentary merely as an ‘empowerment’ piece perpetuates colonial legacies and forfeits the opportunity to address the patriarchal structures responsible for the oppression of Muslim women. Sahar Ghumkhor explains this forfeiture as placing hope “in individual acts of bravery over the possibility of society-wide transformative movements for economic and political justice”. 

Are Muslim women actually ‘empowered’ by partaking in a ‘western’ activity? How could skateboarding be an act of empowerment? These were questions left unaddressed by coverage of the film. Few could argue that Muslim women skateboarding is not unique. But what is the context which makes the skateboarding so unique? This story remained untold by the media and an opportunity to report on female and societal oppression was lost. 

“The Struggling Girl” and the Death of Kevin Carter

“The Struggling Girl” is a photograph taken by South African photojournalist, Kevin Carter. The photograph actually depicts a starving boy stalked by a vulture while on his way to a UN relief location in Sudan. He was one of many victims of the 1993 famine caused by political unrest and civil war. This image, appearing in The New York Times, sparked much controversy. Heartbroken subscribers wanted to know the story behind the photo and the boy’s fate. It was confirmed that he eventually made it to the nearby relief station after Carter took the photograph. Carter was shamed for not aiding the boy who survived the famine but ultimately died of malarial fever fourteen years later. The photograph won a Pulitzer prize in 1993. Shortly thereafter, Carter committed suicide.

While Carter was subject to much criticism for allegedly failing to assist the boy, no criticism was directed towards the media for failing to report on the photo’s context. The media completely failed to contextualize the image and educate the viewer as to the human rights abuses, war, drought, and structural conditions in Sudan. The photograph touched the hearts of thousands, but the media failed to take the opportunity to use emotion to effect greater, positive change. Indeed, it would seem that publishing an image without reporting on the conditions which make the image so startling misses an opportunity to contribute towards long lasting solutions. Arguably it is not Carter who should be faulted, but rather the media for not using a striking photograph as a catalyst for investigative and enlightening reporting.

Contextualizing Mr. Floyd’s Death

In recent years there have been media outlets which more aggressively provide context with reported stories, which can effectuate positive change. Perhaps contextualizing covered news events is a step towards what Johan Galtung calls “peace journalism”. Going beyond simple documentation of violence, peace journalism proposes ways to explain the causes of a given conflict, ways to resolve it, and seeks to collaborate with such organizations as Amnesty International and the International Criminal Court in order to effectuate structural change. 

Of course, there is debate as to the degree to which the media should move from objective reporting to problem solver. To what extent should journalists seek to report the story behind the story in order to resolve root causes of injustice? Would this make them humanitarian practitioners? The media may inform the public and serve truth, but is it their obligation to contextualize a story, and perhaps report on actionable solutions, when doing so serves a greater good?  The answers to these questions go beyond the scope of this article, but if one is to discuss a reporter’s role in contextualizing news, it is important to contemplate this relevant discussion.

Returning to coverage of Mr. Floyd’s death, has the media gone beyond just eight minutes and forty-six seconds and placed into context the structural, social conditions which perpetuated the tragedy? Will the Floyd story transcend a YouTube video or exceed the twenty-four-hour news cycle? This will only take place if the media transcends simple storytelling and provides context to Mr. Floyd’s death, revealing the power structures and social disparities which made his death possible.

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