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volume 5
december 2002

The mass production of ignorance


  News content and audience understanding
by Greg Philo
  Is television news really informative about what goes on in the developing world? And what do audiences learn from it? Over the last years the Media Group at Glasgow University undertook three major studies, looking into the relationship between television news content and the manner in which audiences respond. Greg Philo here summarizes the outcomes of these projects and discusses their implications.
1 Introduction. This paper examines key issues in the relationship between television news content and the manner in which audiences respond to it. In past research this relationship has been analysed from various theoretical perspectives. Some have seen news content as essentially ideological and as having the power to limit and structure audience belief (Glasgow Media Group, 1976, 1980; Philo, 1990; Herman and Chomsky, 1998). Others have seen the news as a constant recurrence of routinised journalistic practice (Rock, 1973; Enzensberger, 1974). Still others have seen news content as primarily directed by commercial criteria, based on assumptions about what audiences "really" want to watch (Stone, 2000). There is also a strong current in contemporary research which suggests that media are engaged in the mass production of social ignorance. This is well expressed in the title of Danny Schechter's The more you watch the less you know (1998).
  There are other ways in which in which the relationship between news content and audiences have been theorised — for an account see: Philo and Miller, 2000. I will concentrate here on the above perspectives as I think elements of each of these can add very importantly to a developed understanding of this issue. In making this case, I will draw upon three major studies which were undertaken by the Media Group at Glasgow University. They all focussed on news content and public understanding of the developing world.
  1. The first was a study of television coverage of the Rwandan refugee crisis of 1994. This study was undertaken together with the Overseas Development Institute and the role of the Media Group was to analyse the major themes in news content relating to the crisis. We worked jointly with Lindsey Hilsum — now the diplomatic correspondent of Channel 4 News — who at the time was working in Rwanda as a journalist. She contributed to the report by writing about the production processes which influenced editorial content (Philo e.a., 1999).
  2. The second study was of news coverage of the subsequent war in Zaire. The study was undertaken jointly with the Save the Children Fund and its purpose was to analyse the range of explanations in news coverage which was being made available to viewers (Beattie e.a., 1999). There was a good deal of concern at this time amongst NGO's and government departments that public understanding of crises in Africa and in other parts of the developing world was severely limited and that one reason for this might be the nature of television coverage.
  3. Our third study in the area was undertaken for the Department For International Development (DFID) (Glasgow Media Group, 2000). This study focussed on television reporting of the whole of the developing world and examined which countries, issues and types of events were covered. We also selected a number of case studies for detailed analysis. These were examples of the more frequent categories of TV news coverage of events, including for example conflict / war / terrorism and disasters such as earthquakes. The method employed in these content studies is a version of thematic analysis and consisted of a detailed examination of the language and visuals of news reports. The purpose is to examine how key themes emerge in TV news reporting and how they are used to structure and develop stories. In practice the news text is broken down into separate references — phrases or sentences — which relate to the range of themes which are covered in the story. A numerical account of these is also given, which allows some judgements to be made about the dominance of specific themes.
  For the DFID study, explanatory and contextualising references were identified in order to assess how much the content might assist audiences in understanding development issues. For the same reason we also examined other types of television format such as cookery and travel programmes and other documentary output. This work on content was accompanied by an extensive audience study which was conducted using focus groups. We interviewed a total of 26 groups, selected on criteria of age, income, ethnic background and gender — total 165 people. The purpose of the interviews was to identify patterns of understanding and belief about the developing world and to trace the origin of these in, for example, media accounts or from other sources such as schooling or peer groups. We also wished to examine how media products might work to compel audience attention, to entertain and create lasting images as well as how they might produce more negative responses from viewers. The DFID study was undertaken in close contact with senior production staff from the BBC, ITN, Channel 4, Sky and Discovery Television. As a result of these links with broadcasters, there was a further pilot study in which senior journalists worked directly with a focus group. In this extension of the study, the journalists took part in the group discussion to investigate issues of audience interest and comprehension and how these might be influenced by changes in the structure and content of news reporting.
  There are three key issues emerging from these studies which I will outline here:
  1. That the decision made by broadcasters — on commercial criteria — about what viewers would desire to watch have in the long run produced very negative responses in TV audiences towards the developing world.
  2. That audiences are misinformed about the developing world because of the low level of explanations and context which is given in television reporting and because some explanations which are present are partial and informed by what might be termed "post-colonial beliefs."
  3. That a change in the quality of explanation which is given can radically alter both attitudes to the developing world and the level of audience interest in the subject.
2 Production decisions and assumptions about audiences. There is a widespread belief in broadcasting that audiences are not interested in factual programming on the developing world. This is the conclusion of a study of the beliefs and attitudes of broadcasters by the Third World and Environment Broadcasting Trust (3WE). This study was commissioned by DFID to run parallel to our work and an extensive sample of 38 senior broadcasters, commissioning editors and programme makers were interviewed. The responses in these interviews highlighted the issue of audience demand and the assumptions which were made about this within broadcasting. As George Alagiah, a senior BBC journalist, notes (3WE, 2000: 160):
  "Programme editors are driven by audience interest, but this can lead to a fixation with home, leisure and consumer items instead of the broader agenda."
  His words find an echo in the comments of George Carey of the production company Mentorn Barraclough Carey (3WE, 2000: 159):
  "I try and guess what the audience wants. Most people switch on to be entertained not to get a message. Instinctively I feel domestic stories will be more interesting than foreign ones."
  The point is spelt out more forcefully by Steve Hewlett, Director of Programmes at Carlton Television (3WE, 2000: 159):
  "I know from past experience that programmes about the developing world don't bring in the audiences. They're not about us, and they're not usually about things we can do anything about."
  Commercial criteria are now a key consideration for programme makers and this comes down in part to providing what they assume the audiences will want to watch. As Charles Tremayne, controller of factual programmes at Granada TV puts it (3WE, 2000: 159):
  "We're past the days of giving audiences what they should have — now it's all about what they want."
  But the assumptions made are not necessarily well informed about why audiences watch and what conditions their level of interest. As Alex Holmes, editor of the programme Modern Times at the BBC admits (3WE, 2000: 159):
  "Audience interest is very important, second only to a good story, but we don't know exactly what people want. I imagine what they want. It's blissfully unscientific on Modern Times!"
  One consequence of these assumptions on audience interest has apparently been the drastic reduction of factual programming about the developing world. A report by Jennie Stone for 3WE concluded that the total output of factual programmes on developing countries by the four terrestrial channels dropped by 50% in the 10 years after 1989 (Stone, 2000: 4). Our own study showed that when the developing world is featured on the news a high proportion of the coverage related to war, conflict, terrorism and disasters. This is especially so for the main television channels with over a third of coverage on BBC and ITN devoted to such issues. Much of the remaining coverage is given over either to sport or to visits by westerners to developing countries. For example, in our sample the Bahamas were in the news because Mick Jagger and Gerry Hall had visited and some countries were featured simply because Richard Branson's balloon had floated over them (Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 20-21).
  Programmes such as BBC2's Newsnight and Channel 4 News had a wider coverage of issues such as trade and politics but it was clear that the focus for mainstream TV news was more likely to be on dramatic and negative images of the developing world. The 3WE study for example found that although coverage had declined overall, the reporting of disasters had actually increased by 5% (Stone, 2000: 15). When disasters are covered journalist select news angles and visual images which they assume will compel audience attention, for example news of an earthquake will feature scenes of destruction, chaos, visuals of collapsed buildings, frantic rescue efforts and appeals for help. These become the basic themes of earthquake / disaster coverage.
  For example, we analysed news of the Colombian earthquake in January 1999 and showed how it featured these elements. But there was very little said on the country itself or of what distinguished this crisis, or about what it meant to the society other than it being simply a horrific occurrence. There was nothing said on the impact of the earthquake on Columbia's coffee growing region or the long term economic repercussions on unemployment and investment. Coffee was being planted as an alternative to cocaine so there were potentially also very great consequences in terms of the development of the drug trade. As we noted, the focus of television on pictures and extraordinary visual moments to illustrate the crisis, had led to a neglect of context and explanation. But if Columbia was to be seen and understood as anything more than a disaster area, then it is important that its people be shown as having a history, politics, economy and everyday life which both pre and post-date the visual images of an earthquake (Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 60).
  This does not mean that journalists should avoid reporting the terrible human consequences of such an event. The problem arises when these are the only themes in the coverage and they become routinised and occur each time there is a similar disaster. Then, for the viewer there is in practice little to distinguish one such crisis from another in the developing world other than the name of the country. Such stories and those of conflict and violence are visually striking and in fact constitute a high proportion of the coverage. So it is not surprising that viewers perceive the developing world to be not much more than a series of catastrophes.
3 Limited explanations. Another key problem with such coverage is the very limited nature of explanations which are given — if at all — of events such as political conflict and war. In our study of TV news coverage of the Rwandan refugee crisis of 1994, we found a very large number of references — 122 in our sample — which stressed the scale of the flight and the huge number of people involved but gave no account of why any of these events were occurring. We hear of "the exodus of a nation," "Rwanda on the verge of catastrophe," "there is a flow of people ... some hundred thousand people have fled ... at the rate of 4000 an hour," "you can see only a portion of this mass of humanity at any one time ... a million desolate people" (BBC1, 2100, 18th and 19th July 1994). We found only 27 references which gave any explanation of what was occurring. Many of these were very limited and sometimes incorrect as in the suggestion that the refugees had "fled the killing in Rwanda" (BBC2, Newsnight, 18 July 1994). This is unclear in the sense that the Hutu refugees actually contained the militias who had perpetrated the genocide in Rwanda. They were not therefore fleeing from the genocide but from the consequences of it, in the sense that they were seeking to avoid retribution (Philo e.a., 1999: 215).
  In a subsequent study, we analysed media coverage of the events of 1996 in which the refugee camps on the borders of Rwanda were dissolved by the Rwandan army and the Hutu militias fled to the interior of Zaire leading eventually to a full scale war in that country. This news coverage contained many more references to the genocide in Rwanda and its link to the refugee exodus. By November 1996 it was quite frequently stated on the news that Hutu militias had perpetrated massacres upon the Tutsi population. But an explanation at this level is still very limited. To state simply that Hutus have massacred Tutsis does not move far beyond explaining the events as a "tribal conflict" between what may be assumed by the audience to be "primitive" peoples of Africa. As we showed, Africa was referred to on the news as a place of "tribal conflict," "tribal enemies," "ethnic war," "insanity," "chaos" and "anarchy," inhabited by "wild men." Against these descriptions are put explanations of why the West is concerned about military intervention in the region. For example (BBC1, 2100 1st, 8th and 13th November 1996):
- Reporter: "There remained extreme caution about being sucked into the region's blood-thirsty politics."
  On ITN the people of Africa were compared to the topography of the landscape which they inhabited. The volcanoes were described as being "far more predicable as the people they watch over" (ITN 2200, 18 November 1996). One difficulty with accounts such as these is that Africa tends to be seen as a country rather than as a continent with many different cultures which have complex political and economic histories. As Lindsey Hilsum has shown, in her account of the genocide, Rwanda was a highly organised and disciplined society. She describes the hierarchies and the social structure of the country (Hilsum, 1995: 165-166):
  "A group of households comprised a cellule; every cellule has a spokesman who reported to the conseiller who was in charge of the next administrative unit up the ladder, the secteur ... and so on to the highest reaches of the government ... unlike most African capitals, Kigali remained small and largely immune to urban drift; Rwanda had pass laws stricter than those of South Africa."
  As Hilsum noted the Swiss government had given more money to Rwanda than to any other country in Africa, because they saw a society that was as disciplined as their own and in which there was very little corruption. It was exactly because Rwanda was so highly organised that the Hutu military regime was able to put into effect such an appalling genocide in such a short time. As she writes (Hilsum, 1995: 170):
  "The same efficiency — the discipline and order so admired by the foreign aid workers — meant that when the orders came of 7th April for the killing to begin they were usually obeyed."
  As she commented to us in an interview, many journalists found it difficult to understand this because of their own preconceptions about Africa (Interview 24, April 1998):
  "Most journalists couldn't believe that Africans could be so organised — they couldn't recognise the genocide for what it was ... Rwanda was more similar to Nazi Germany in that there was a group with an extremist, racist ideology. They defined other groups as the enemy because of the historical relationships between the ethnic groups, in the way that there were reasons for the Jews being chosen. Politicians manipulate relations between the different ethic groups and turn them into ideology. In Rwanda to stay in power, they exterminated the other group."
  But in the absence of more complex social and political explanations, it is possible to fall back on images of "tribal passions." The BBC for example showed shots of Africans dancing in grass skirts at a border post, and described them as "the wild men of the murderous interahamwe militia" (BBC1, 2100, 1 November 1996). They were not in fact Rwandans at all but were apparently Zairian border guards who had dressed in this way in order to insult the Rwandan army. It was a very misleading image of the conflict but it was very widely used both in this country and abroad. We found, not surprisingly, that the assumptions made by many journalists tended to be held within the general public.
  In a pilot for the DFID research I asked a focus group what image came into their minds when they heard the word "tribe." They replied that it would be people with grass skirts and spears standing in front of huts. At the end of that group meeting I explained to them something of the history of Rwanda and commented that the Hutu military regime in 1994 had killed all opposition groups including moderate Hutus, Belgium nationals and soldiers with the UN as well as the Tutsi population. In Butare, a city in the south of the city which was known for its tolerance and liberalism the Hutu students and lecturers at the University were killed because they were assumed to be in opposition to the Hutu government. One woman in the focus group commented "Oh you don't think of them as having universities" (St. Albans Group, 29 June 1998).
4 Audience responses. A key finding of our research was that the images which audience groups recalled of the developing world, were overwhelmingly negative, including famine, poverty, refugees, war and conflict. The source of these images was given routinely as the media — press and television — as in this comment from a woman in a focus group in London (retired group, London; Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 137):
- Respondent (female): "Well every time you turn on the TV or pick up a paper, there's another [war] starting or there is more poverty or destruction. It is all too much."
  It was also clear that children's attitudes had been influenced very strongly. In this example, teenagers discuss travel programmes about India. They believed it would not be worth having them (15-year-olds, London; Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 138):
- Respondent 1: "Not on India."
- Respondent 2: "No one goes there so why do they want to?"
- Respondent 3: "It is not a popular tourist attraction because in India they have always got problems."
- Respondent 2: "It would be a holiday nightmare if someone went to India. The houses are full of bugs."
- Moderator: "So it doesn't sounds appealing to go there?"
- Respondent 2: "The swimming pools are full of cockroaches and stuff."
- Respondent 3: "There is always terrorists over there anyway."
  A small number of people had experienced living and working in the developing world or in occupations which gave them a different perspective. As one woman from Glasgow commented (low income focus group, Glasgow; Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 137):
- Respondent (female): "I do some voluntary work for Oxfam so I hear a lot about things from there. I mean, you wouldn't believe half of what is going, really positive things, I mean that you wouldn't hear about anywhere else. I watch the news sometimes and think oh yeah, here we go again, why don't you tell us about the people who are trying to change things and the huge advances that are being made."
  In the sample as a whole, 10% claimed an active interest in development issues while 25% said they had no interest at all. Amongst the remaining people there were varying levels of interest and concern for what were seen as the problems of the developing world (Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 3). A second key finding of our research was that most of the people in our sample had a very low level of understanding about events in the developing world and there was widespread confusion over what was happening there and why. The extraordinary mixture of ideas in popular understanding of the developing world is conveyed in this exchange between 15 year olds in London who are discussing the issue of third world debt (15-year-olds, London; Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 139):
- Moderator: "Does anybody know anything about or has seen anything on TV about the debt campaign?"
- Respondent 1: "The what?"
- Respondent 2: "Yes."
- Moderator: "Removal of third world debt."
- Respondent 1: "No."
- Respondent 3: "Is it 50p a month and you can help them?"
- Respondent 2: "We pay them and they don't pay us back."
- Respondent 4: "You get to help a child and all that stuff."
- Respondent 5: "Pay 50p a child."
- Respondent 2: "Do they owe us?"
- Respondent 6: "They owe us twice the amount."
- Respondent 2: "We will never get it back."
- Respondent 1: "They haven't even got an economy."
  For the great majority of the people in our sample the workings of the world economy were simply a mystery. Organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank were recognised as names that were frequently mentioned but we found that there was very little knowledge about what these institutions were or how they operated. These are typical exchanges (middle class group, London):
- Moderator: "Do terms like the World Bank mean anything to you?"
- Respondent 1: "Yes, but not very much."
- Moderator: "International Monitary Fund?"
- Respondent 1: "Yes, IMF. They always say the same sentences but there is never much explanation about who controls them or whatever else and how they operate as a body... They talk about them as though everyone knows what they are."
  Two respondents from the ethnic minority group (Afro Caribbean, London):
- Respondent 1: "I have heard the initials IMF but I couldn't tell you what it is or what it does."
- Respondent 2: "It is to do with money, something to do with trade and economics or something."
  And, a respondent of the retired group (London; Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 140):
- Respondent 1: "The IMF is something to do with currency, isn't it? It lets you get money in another country easily. I don't know any more than that."
  People in the groups readily admitted that they simply did not understand the news and thought that the external world was not being properly explained to them. As one group member expressed it (middle class group, London; Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 139):
- Respondent: "I have a constant sense of not being properly informed about background to issues and things like that."
  In other groups it was commented that television presumes an understanding which may not exist. One person spoke of his experience in watching news about East Timor (low income group, Bath; Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 139):
- Respondent: "Sometimes with the East Timor thing, it is assumed you know exactly what is happening ... but I don't know what is happening."
  Some of the groups also identified a key issue in the organisation of television journalism, which might be termed the "half way through problem." This is when journalists covering a long-running story tend to assume that their audience has watched the full sequence of reports, and so they do not need to repeat background issues mentioned in earlier reports. But in practice audiences come into stories at different points in the sequence. If they have missed the explanation that may have gone out two days before, they will have difficulty following the next series of reports. As this group member comments, the critical issue for him was to catch a story when it is "young" (low income group, Bath; Glasgow Media Group, 2000: 141):
- Respondent: "It is whether or not you catch a story young, like the first time it has been on or whatever, then you will follow it through. If you hear about it and you haven't seen it on the television you tend to not know much about it."
  There is now some recognition of these problems by professional broadcasters and a desire to find new ways of structuring news and other programmes so that viewers may be better informed. The 3WE research project recorded these comments from Ian Stuttard, a documentary producer at the BBC (3WE, 2000: 162):
  "The whole angle is wrong. We look at the results of things most of the time instead of the causes. Wars rather than the arms trade is an example of this so we're conditioned to think of the developing world in a distorted way because we don't look behind the scenes. It's a challenge because viewers are less politically aware — this isn't helped by television! — and because "causes" are not always very visual. How do you film money-laundering and arms deals? But it can be done!"
  "How" it could be done was the subject of the next phase of our work.
5 Audience understanding and interest. This is an account of a pilot study in which senior BBC news personnel took part in focus group discussions. The purpose was to investigate how changes in the structure and content of programming might affect audience comprehension and levels of interest. In the event, Vin Ray, the world news editor and David Shukman, a world news correspondent both took part. The method used for the focus groups had three elements.
  First, the group was given a series of still photographs which had been taken off screen from an actual news story. The story was chosen in conjunction with the BBC and they also provided the video material which was used for the taking of the still pictures. These were chosen to represent the main elements of the story and this selection was done in collaboration with a BBC news journalist. In the research exercise, the focus group members are asked to look at the photographs and then to imagine that they are journalists and to write their own news story using only the pictures as a stimulus. The story is then read out but the group and there is a brief discussion about the sources of information which they have used and their level of knowledge of the area.
  In the second part of the session the actual news item from which the photographs were taken was shown to the group. This was then followed by a moderated discussion which focussed on six specific points:
  1. What was the knowledge base which was used for the story which was written by the group members?
  2. What was their level of comprehension of the issues involved in the story?
  3. How much was added to their understanding of the story by the viewing of the actual news item?
  4. What would need to be added to their knowledge to produce a better understanding of the issues involved?
  5. How does the manner in which the content of the story is shaped or presented affect levels of interest?
  6. How might such interest by affected by changes in presentation and content?
  Using this method we conducted two groups in Glasgow and then a third in Bath in the south of England, at which the BBC journalists were present. At this meeting the journalists joined the group midway through the discussion and the whole of the meeting was filmed by the BBC. In all, there were 20 people in the groups — two of six, one of eight people. They were "naturally occurring," in that their members normally worked together. The first Glasgow group were janitors, the second office staff, while the Bath group were postal workers.
  The news story which was used for the groups featured the continuing conflict in Angola. It was presented by David Shukman and had originally been broadcast over two nights on the BBC news on 3rd and 4th May 2000. The first part of the story dealt with the human effects of the conflict and the tragedies caused by land mines. Shukman reported that a million people were trapped in one part of Angola and could not escape because the roads were mined. There were images of children in hospital who had suffered appalling injuries. The report ends with the story of three sisters who had all lost limbs because of land mines (BBC 1, 2100, 3 May 2000):
  "This family of refugees has had to learn how to cope. First, this sister lost a leg to a mine, looking for water. A few months later, a second sister suffered the same fate. Then a third sister lost both her legs searching for food. They're surviving but they're scared."
  One sister is interviewed as she holds her baby:
  "I think so often about being disabled — and of course the war keeps going on and so we feel maybe we don't want to live anymore."
  The second report looked at the ongoing war and at some of the reasons why it continued. There is a brief history of the conflict given and Shukman notes that it began as a cold war struggle between east and west. The report then showed mounds of weapons to illustrate claims made by the Angolan government that they were winning the war against UNITA. Shukman comments that the war has its own momentum:
  "It is a conflict without an obvious end, there is no attempt either at a peace process. The suspicion is that there are people on both sides actually keeping the war going, for money."
  As he goes on to comment, Angola has immense natural riches. The rebels of UNITA control the diamonds, while the government controls huge reserves of oil. He notes that America buys more oil from Angola than from Kuwait. The report then shows people in churches and a bishop praying for peace and an end to the corruption which is fuelling the war. Shukman then comments that:
  "Much of Angola's wealth goes on weapons but some goes on extravagance like this new presidential palace which is hardly ever used and huge sums simply vanish into private hands."
  The Angolan Defence Minister is then interviewed and he admits that senior figures are stealing, but nobody tries to stop them:
  "Imagine you are an investigator who accused some hot shot minister of pinching the money, you'd just be banged up in prison ... Lots of Angola's money is just flowing outside to bank accounts in Europe and Switzerland — it's a dreadful situation."
  This corruption is then contrasted with the fate of the refugees from the war. A woman from a refugee camp is interviewed talking about the fate of her own children. A spokesman from the UN is then interviewed and Shukman notes that "the UN accuses the Angolan government of wasting its money." His final comment summarises the central theme of the report (BBC1, 2100, 4 May 2000):
  "Once this country profited from peace, now a few profit from war and there are many who suffer the consequences."
6 An African issue ... The still photographs given to the groups were taken from each of the elements of the above news reports. They showed mounds of weapons, children, land mines, a mine clearance operation, casualties in hospital, an oil rig, diamonds, the bishop, people praying, a palace, refugee camps, the government minister and a UN spokesman. In practice the groups discussed the pictures and then wrote a short news account. This normally draws its information from a variety of sources including their own experience but more usually they draw information from a range of new stories which they have seen. For example, in a story written by one of the Glasgow groups there are references to child soldiers which are drawn from news stories about other African conflicts.
  That said, their story is in many respects very close to the original news (Glasgow Group one, 28 August 2000):
  "Today in Angola due to the conflict, children as young as eight are being armed with varieties of guns and weapons. Arms was retrieved by the government from the rebels. The reason for the conflict was due to the unfair distribution of the countries wealth. The bishop has come out to condemn this behaviour and had made a passionate plea to the Angolan to stop this unnecessary killing. He held a service for the locals praying for a peaceful conclusion to the feud. Local soldiers can be seen trying to unearth deadly mines, the very same mines that Princess Diana condemned and worked hard to put a stop to."
  In another group one member goes beyond the actual content of the programme to discuss the arms trade and comments that this is a relationship which is often missing from television reports (Bath group, 21 September 2000):
  "When you look at the — pictures on — the table you think this is a internal dispute which are mention, especially on television and stuff. It doesn't get mentioned that people are selling guns out there."
  This person also mentions that the "white man wants the goodies" and therefore raises the possibilities of international links to the conflict — and one other concurred in this. But overall, the members of the groups tended to see the problem as a specifically African issue as these exchanges from the Bath group indicate:
- Respondent 1 (male): "They can't look after themselves ..."
- Moderator: "You see a lot which you see as being tragedy and fighting?"
- Respondent 1 (male): "We can't do a lot can we?"
- Moderator: "But you don't actually see it as relating to you at all?"
- Respondent 2 (male): "What can we do? Send money but that is as far as it goes really?"
- Moderator: "Is it too strong to say that they are not very good at governing themselves?" [They all nod]
- Moderator: "Would most people agree with that or not?" [General agreement]
  In the second phase of the exercise, the groups watched the actual news programmes from which the photographs had been taken. The reports engaged them to the extent that they felt strong sympathy for the victims. A small number thought that the British government should intervene and most supported a ban on land mines. But there was a general feeling in these groups and indeed in those which we interviewed in earlier research that the situation in such countries was hopeless and had very little to do with people in Britain. The only possible response for the individual was to give money to charities. The explanations that existed in the news bulletins which these groups were shown did little to challenge such established views on Africa. They tended to fit in with popular assumptions about it as being corrupt and misgoverned. The great majority of people in the groups knew very little about specific conflicts and as with our earlier research people commented that the different wars and countries tended to shade one into another.
  Given this general lack of knowledge it is very easy for a news programme to actually increase confusion. For example several people in these groups misunderstood the reference in the news bulletins to the conflict in Angola as having originated in a cold war struggle. They assumed that this meant that the struggle was still going on and as one put it "the Americans are buying the oil, the Russians have taken the stones" (Glasgow group one). There was a sense amongst some in the groups that "big power" involvement might be to blame. As one put it "the Americans are making money ... and maybe feeding it [the conflict]" (Glasgow group two, 6 September 2000). But overall the groups saw the problem as an "African" issue. It had nothing to do with them or their own everyday lives. It was suggested that the problems of Africa related to peculiarly African factors such as the low level of education in the population as a whole. This is made clear in the following exchange (Bath group):
- Moderator: "What about the mass of the people ...?"
- Respondent 1 (male): "They can't do anything about it."
- Respondent 2 (male): "They can't read or write so ..."
- Moderator: "Would it make a difference if they could read or write?"
- Respondent 1 (male): "They would be more educated. If you can't read or write you can't really go to a government and say ..."
- Respondent 2 (male): "Obviously as a nation we are more educated and we wouldn't let that sort of thing happen."
  The important point here is that no-one in the groups related the continuing problems of Angola to their own actions and there was little or no sense of the world system of socio-economic relationships which sustain such conflicts. The news report by David Shukman had pointed in some ways to these wider relationships, for example in the comments on America purchasing Angolan oil and the movement of funds to Europe and Switzerland. But these brief references were not developed or their significance explained. They did not therefore greatly affect the understanding of the groups.
7 Social and economic relationships. In the final part of the discussion, the moderator pursued a series of questions which were intended to explore the social and economic relationships which underpinned the continuing conflict and the inability of the mass of the population in Angola to end it. These questions related to the following themes: (1) the role of education, (2) the use and supply of weapons, (3) the resourcing of the conflict and (4) trade and financial links to the industrial countries. On the first of these issues, as we have seen, education was understood by some as a key difference between Africa and Britain in the sense that it affected the political choices that would be made by their populations. To explore this, the moderator pointed out to the groups that in his own professional work he had encountered many African people who were well educated, religious and very principled but who were not allowed to be part of the political process in their own societies. So would education by itself, make any difference to naked military force? The group members saw the point, as in this exchange (Bath group):
- Moderator: "I just wondered, if you went up to [the corrupt rulers] and said "I am well educated and I want you to stop stealing the money," what would they do?"
- Respondent (male): "Probably shoot you."
  There were similar ideas about the nature of power and control expressed in the other groups (Glasgow group two):
- Moderator: "If the mass of the population very clearly don't want it to happen ..."
- Respondent 1 (female): "They don't have any control over it do they? All these women and children, what control do they have? It is not as though they can pick up a phone or ..."
- Moderator: "So who does have control?"
- Respondent 1 (female): "The men."
- Respondent 2 (female): "The people making the money."
  And in this exchange from the first Glasgow group:
- Moderator: "Why can't [the population] actually resolve it?"
- Respondent 1 (female): "They have got no power over it."
- Respondent 2 (male): "They haven't got any say in the matter, do you know what I mean?"
- Moderator: "So who has got the say then?"
- Respondent 2 (male): "Your government again and the rebels."
- Moderator: "Why would the government and the rebels have more say than the people?"
- Respondent 2 (male): "They are the ones with the arms, the guns ..."
- Respondent 3 (male): "And the money."
  These points had been made in the news item by David Shukman and the groups readily understood them. The discussion then moved on to consider the external relationships which made possible this absolute control of the population. A central issue here was the supply of arms. The moderator pointed out that Angola had no armament industries, so the question was raised as to where to arms came from. Some identified Eastern Europe as a major supplier of arms but all understood that the weapons and mines must be coming from outside (Glasgow Group one):
- Moderator: "You said that it all carries on because the rebels and the government have got arms and they have got guns and they have got money. Is that anything to do with us?"
- Respondent 1 (male): "Yes, Where are they getting the guns, is it an outside source?"
- Moderator: "But that is not in the programme is it, Angola hasn't got a gun industry and doesn't make tanks that is one point isn't it? Where are all these arms coming from?"
- Respondent 2 (male): "Russia, Communist countries."
  The moderator then raised the issue of how the guns and mines were paid for and the groups all understood that the money came from the sale of diamond and oil to the industrial countries. The groups were then asked what happened to the additional profits and the moderator pointed out that money had been moved to banks in Europe, including Britain.
  Information about international links to such conflicts is available in the public media, but it tends to exist in diverse fragments which are scattered across a variety of sources. In October 2000, the London Evening Standard reported allegations on the laundering of funds in the city of London under the headline "City Banks Helped Nigerian Dictator to Launder £4 Billion" (20 October 2000). In December 2000, the Guardian reported on a crack down on "blood diamonds," citing recommendations from the UN that African leaders who traded gems for arms should be punished. The UN report also pointed to Switzerland as a transit point for almost half of the rough diamonds entering Britain. It showed how Switzerland was then listed as "country of origin" and their true source was lost (20 December 2000). In January 2001, the Guardian ran the headline "Oil Firms Accused Over Angola Bribes." It reported allegations that "international oil companies had been complicit in the looting of Angola's assets by the countries ruling elite" (17 January 2001). The allegations were made at the Parliamentary Select Committee on international development.
  Although such information can be identified in the media, the crucial point is that it is not routinely referenced in television news accounts and when it does appear in the media it is in diverse and fragmented form. It is as if all the different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which is needed to explain Angola appear one at a time and in different places. It is not therefore surprising that there is little effect on public consciousness. In the focus groups for this study very few people had any understanding of such links and relationships when they were first shown the news items. The group discussion changed this. The news items by David Shukman could now be seen as offering an image of Angola as being run for the profit of what were effectively two groups of bandits — one was the guerillas who controlled the diamonds and the other the corrupt government who controlled the oil.
  It was also possible to see why the conflict continued. As long as the Angolan economy was based on simple extraction processes — oil and diamonds — then the mass of the population were not involved. All that was required was for a military group — guerillas or army — to ensure that the process continued. The industrial countries purchased the product, laundered the money and supplied arms. Of course, it is true that the African government was corrupt, but any society based on such relationships can generate an elite which will take advantage for itself. A key difference from a country such as Britain is that it has an integrated industrial and commercial economy. The mass of the population in Britain have over time been able to demand representation, civil rights and political change, because they have been able to withdraw their labour and thus influence the economy. This is as true of the Chartists and striking miners demanding the vote from the 1830s as it of lorry drivers demanding cheap fuel in November 2000. This option is simply not available to the mass of the Angolan population, or indeed to that of other countries in a similar position, such as Sierra Leone. These points were made in the focus group by the moderator. It seems clear that without this additional information most of the people in the groups would not have understood the international links which effectively promoted and prolonged the conflict. This is partly because of their own preconceptions about Africa and also because the references in the news items to external relationships were partial and undeveloped.
  For these group members, the discussion of the international links came as a revelation. There was real surprise and some shock. This was for two principal reasons. The first was that their perception of Africa changed. Instead of the chaos and civil conflict being seen as a specifically "African" — or third world — phenomenon, it could now be understood as the product of a series of economic and social relationships. This is important because it can also be understood that such relationships may be changed. In contrast a belief that Africans are innately incapable of running their own countries suggests that nothing can be done. Secondly and most crucially the group members could see that the relationships which sustained the conflict involved them directly, at the most simple level in their own purchasing decisions.
8 A "new" way of understanding. The moderator made this clear and asked them if they had ever thought that when they bought an object such as a diamond, it might be linked to such conflicts (Glasgow Group two):
- Moderator: "Do you ever think of yourself, that each time you drive your car or each time you wear a diamond that the diamond is paying for the landmine and the car is paying for the ...?"
- Respondent 1 (female): "And that is causing ..."
- Respondent 2 (female): "I have never thought of that."
- Respondent 3 (female): "I don't think of that."
- Respondent 1 (female): "Oh no."
- Respondent 3 (female): "You never look at yourself."
- Moderator: "Have you ever seen anything on TV to make a link like that, that this diamond finances this landmine?"
- Respondent 1 (female): "No."
- Respondent 3 (female): "No, because they don't, they don't actually do a chain [of thought] so you know."
  It was apparent that such knowledge would have affected the purchasing decisions of many people in the groups if they had been informed of the link between the war and the sale of diamonds. This was not true of everyone and three people in the Bath group dissented saying that it would not affect them if they were getting the product cheaper (Bath Group):
- Moderator: "If you knew that you were getting a diamond half price because it was from the guerillas ..."
- Respondent 1 (male): "If it wasn't you it would be someone else wouldn't it?"
- Moderator: "It would just be you or someone else so you wouldn't bother?"
- Respondent 1 (male): "Yes."
- Moderator: "Anybody here would worry if what they were buying is paying for landmines?"
- Respondent 2 (female): "I would."
- Respondent 3 (male): "Yes."
- Respondent 4 (male): "Maybe landmines I would."
  For most of the people in the groups the effect of making the link between their own conduct and events in Africa was both shock and a sense of revelation as if they had been given "secret knowledge" that "opened their eyes" (Bath Group):
- Respondent 1 (male): "It certainly opened my eyes ..."
- Moderator: "Did you understand it better this time because of the discussion?"
- Respondent 1 (male): "Better this time because of the discussion."
- Respondent 2 (male): "Yes."
- Respondent 3 (male): "Without a doubt."
- Respondent 1 (male): "All of our views have been changed some what already because of this."
  The Glasgow groups spoke of the knowledge as a revelation and the effect it would have on the population as a whole (Glasgow Group one):
- Respondent (female): "It would open a lot of peoples eyes, I think, if they heard that like people are buying so many litres of oil or petrol or whatever and it is contributing to the landmines and killings and it would open a lot of peoples eyes and make you think a wee bit more as to what is happening."
  They also made clear the difference between seeing the problem as "African" and relating it to other factors (Glasgow Group two):
- Moderator: "What was the difference between watching [the news] and then what we discussed? What were the new things?"
- Respondent 1 (female): "The revelation, that wealth is being used perhaps to fund a more comfortable lifestyle for us westerners."
- Respondent 2 (female): "And that we are helping to contribute to it."
- Respondent 1 (female): "That is definitely what I picked up once we started discussing it. After watching the programme I wouldn't think of that. I would still isolate it as their problem."
- Respondent 3 (female): "It is their problem."
- Respondent 1 (female): "But it was not until after we started discussing that you actually think there is more involved than just the people of Angola. There are other countries involved. There are other individuals involved."
  They are also clear about the effect of the information about international relationships on the process of their own understanding. They distinguished between seeing a jumble of confusing news images and making clear conceptual links (Glasgow Group two):
- Respondent 2 (female): "When I looked at all these photographs you could look at them as all separate photographs ... They could all have a separate story. It is not until you see not even the first film but the second one as well and then the discussion that you can actually put it together and say now I know what it is all about. I have got a better idea of what caused it and who is involved ... It certainly makes a lot more sense in my head now. From looking at the photos at first it was just nothing much. Now I have got more of an idea and it makes more sense to me ..."
- Respondent 2 (female): "As far back as I can remember watching news, there has always been something about Africa or whatever in the news. Now you understand why it had been going on for so long there is so much wealth involved and so many other people involved that you just don't know."
- Moderator: "It is not hard to understand, is it?"
- Respondent 1 (female): "No, it is not."
- Respondent 2 (female): "Once you make the obvious link."
  There was a sense of surprise in the groups at this "new" way of understanding, and in all of them it was strongly suggested that such a way of explaining the Angola conflict would not be allowed on television. The groups were convinced that it would be censored by the government. This was not a theme which was introduced by the moderator but was raised spontaneously in all of the groups, as in the following exchanges (Glasgow Group one):
- Respondent 1 (male): "The government wouldn't allow you to come out with things like that. It would be cut out wouldn't it?"
- Moderator: "Saying what?"
- Respondent 1 (male): "Going into so many details. Don't buy diamond rings and don't buy so much petrol and ... If that was in a programme it would be cut out, wouldn't it?"
- Moderator: "Do you think the government just wouldn't allow that sort of thing to be said?"
- Respondent 1 (male): "I don't think so."
- Respondent 2 (male): "There is too much money involved."
  And in the second Glasgow group:
- Respondent 1 (female): "I think people would find it shocking."
- Respondent 2 (female): "Yes."
- Respondent 1 (female): "Why not put that message across? Because the government doesn't want us to feel that way."
- Respondent 2 (female): "That is why they don't tell you."
- Respondent 3 (female): "Is there a hidden agenda?"
  And in the Bath group:
- Respondent 1 (male): "I just feel that maybe more news should be made on that America are involved."
- Respondent 2 (male): "If they said that Great Britain is part of this there would be mayhem."
- Respondent 3 (male): "They would all be asking questions ..."
- Respondent 2 (male): "Politicians wouldn't say it in the first place because they would be worried they would get kicked out."
- Respondent 4 (male): "They probably wouldn't allow the programme to go ahead anyway."
9 "Balanced" interests. They were convinced that journalists were censored. At the group in Bath Vin Ray and David Shukman, the two journalists from the BBC, were actually present and at this point they were invited to join the discussion. The first question to them followed on directly from the comments on censorship:
- Respondent 1 (male): "Can I just ask you then, are you influenced by the hierarchy to say what you have to say?"
- David Shukman: "Not at all."
  The journalist then goes on to argue that the only kind of censorship is over the pictures which can be shown and this is on the grounds that they may cause offence or be too shocking:
- David Shukman: "We take the view that some people would be offended or shocked too much by some images. For example, the young lad who lost his lower legs in the hospital at twelve years old and the doctor was describing how outrageous it was that new mines were being laid and making it all worse. He offered to take us into the surgery with that young boy to see the next stage of the amputation going on. I said we can't do that and we can't show that. That is a kind of censorship there that we thought of amongst ourselves try and work out what viewers might really object to and be really offended by and what they can handle that is the only type of censorship."
  The point is confirmed by Vin Ray:
- Vin Ray: "We get more complaints about the use of pictures than any other thing. When you are out in the field and you see what is really happening, you want people to see it in all its gruesome glory, to understand what it's like, the problem is that people turn off."
  The obvious question which follows is, if there is no censorship other than on grounds of "taste" then why is the role of the industrial countries and their powerful interests not highlighted in the story? Later in the discussion, David Shukman, made an interesting statement in relation to British oil companies and government policy. He is asked again by a group member about what he can say:
- Respondent 1 (male): "Can you say anything you like on the TV about the government and what is going on? Going back to this, could you say they are blood diamonds and this is what is happening and it is the governments fault and end it?"
- David Shukman: "If it was the governments fault and I have proof then I could say it. It is all indirectly the governments fault. You could say the British oil companies are buying Angolan oil and it is ending up in the forecourts here and that money goes to the Angolan government that BP pay and ..."
- Respondent 1 (male): "What kind of knock on effect do you think would come with our government?"
- David Shukman: "I don't know. If enough people were interested in the fact that BP was getting oil from Angola and the money was vanishing into the Angolan governments pockets and ended up buying weapons or whatever, conceivably people would not want to buy BP oil ... You could certainly make a link and there would be no censorship on that."
  He then comments that they had intended to do an interview with the oil company in Angola, but it was cancelled:
- David Shukman: "As it happens we were hoping to do an interview with BP in Angola and they cancelled at the last minute. My first thought was that they didn't want to talk about it but I can't prove that. You never know exactly why someone has cancelled. There might have been a bit more on that angle if that interview had happened ... There is no censorship in the sense that you think about it. Every BBC journalists has their own rules of impartiality and fairness as far as you can, therefore if you are going to accuse BP you would probably want to invite BP to respond to the accusations you were going to make in the report in order to be fair."
  But the logic of this position is that if the oil companies refuse to appear then any accusations would disappear. This definition of the need to be balanced could actually produce a major imbalance in the explanations which are given. It also begs the question of who had the right — and the power — to insist on "balance." There was apparently no problem with accusing the African government of corruption and no need to balance these accusations with an interview defending their record. This does not mean that the accusations were not true. They may very well have been, just as the accusations against oil companies and against banks in the city of London may also be true. But it is clear that some interests are very much more likely to demand "balance" and to create problems for investigative journalism than others.
  Another area of the group discussion which most interested the journalists was the possible changes which could be made to the structure of news items. How could core issues and explanations be conveyed more clearly to audiences? The feeling in the group was that they should be highlighted in the bulletin and the actions of people in Britain and their consequences abroad should be emphasised:
- David Shukman: "We have been talking about making things clearer, it seems to me from listening to your discussion before, one of the things you all picked up on was the point that you might be driving a car with Angolan oil in the tank or you might wear a diamond ring with an Angolan diamond that was paying for a landmine. If we had said that at the start of the news report ... would it make you sit up a bit more and listen?"
- Respondent 1 (male): "When you do this piece and whatever you have got to do in Angola, if you had put that across first, you think it might have made people look up, yeah. I do."
- Respondent 2 (male): "Inadvertently the government is paying for it as well."
- Respondent 1 (male): "That is where western corruption comes in and I think it would open up a lot of eyes ..."
- Respondent 3 (male): "I think you have got to just shock people. If you want to do a story it has got to start off gory with arms and legs or silence or [saying] you've caused this or ..."
- Respondent 1 (male): "Like you said you would get thousands of letters but it wouldn't stop the person from watching the news the next evening."
  Two points which emerged most clearly were expressed as "you need somehow to relate this to us" and the need "to come in at the end and explain what is happening." A final and important result which was apparent in all of the groups, was a greatly increased level of interest in the subject matter once the conflict was understood as resulting from a system of relationships in which the group members themselves were in some way involved. This change in the level of interest was noted by the journalists. David Shukman (2000) refers to it in his own account of his experiences with the focus group which he wrote later for the The Independent:
  "Attitudes were shifting. Viewing my reports had kindled interest in Angola but it had taken talk of the possible connections with Britain to raise real concern ... The discussion had come alive. These were people who could follow the arguments and did not want to be short changed or patronised. Muttering about being kept to a tight duration in my packages cut no ice. For this group, foreign news, not always the favourite of news rooms was becoming stimulating."
10 Conclusions. There are a number of key issues which emerge from our research. The first is that TV audiences have in general very little understanding of events in the developing world or of major international institutions or relationships. This is in part the result of TV coverage which tends to focus on dramatic, violent and tragic images while giving very little context or explanation to the events which are being portrayed. The development of television organised around crude notions of audience ratings is likely to make this situation worse. The irony is that in seeking to grab the attention of audiences, programme makers are actually fostering very negative attitudes towards the developing world and other international issues and in the long run will reduce audience interest. We also found that in the absence of other explanations on the news, audiences — and some journalists — will "fill in the gaps" with what are effectively post colonial beliefs about Africa and the innate faults of Africans.
  Our new research with BBC journalists showed that the explanation of the core relationships which link the industrial countries to the conflicts of the developing world can produce a distinct change in the understanding and attitudes of audience groups. The crucial point is that the conflict in Angola was located in a world system of commercial and political relationships in which the group members themselves played a part. The importance of this is that it was the understanding of the core relationships which made a difference and meant that audience members could link different elements of the news story to produce a coherent explanation. For some years now, within broadcasting, there have been arguments about the need to better inform and explain in news programmes. These have resulted in demands for longer bulletins, in-depth interviews and more detailed accounts. Such changes can indeed play a part but we should remember that audiences can get lost in detail and longer interviews with prevaricating politicians may simply add to the confusion. The important point for the journalist is the need to summarise the key relationships that explain the events which they are reporting, to say why these matter and how they relate to the audience. These relationships then need to be referred to routinely in news accounts as it cannot be assumed that audiences will have heard and understood them the first time or indeed that they carefully watch each bulletin.
  A key result of our work was that the audience groups showed an increase in their level of interest when they did understand the economic and political links which underpinned the continuing war. The reports by David Shukman had been extremely powerful and had produced a very strong emotional response towards the victims of the conflict. But this was accompanied by feelings that the situation was hopeless and essentially an "African" problem. It was the change in this perception that produced the increased interest. Finally, if we look at world news as a whole it does seem clear that many of the problems which viewers experience result from the actions and practices of the broadcasters themselves. If they are not to be held responsible for the mass production of ignorance then it is they who will need to redress the balance between the current priorities of reporting and the need to properly inform their audience.
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  Greg Philo is research director of the Glasgow University Media Unit; email: g.philo@socsci.gla.ac.uk. Click here for the DIFD study Viewing the world in PDF-format (1 Mb).
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