August 23, 2007

How Media Clichés Hide Genocides

A review of "Framing Genocide: Media, Diplomacy and Conflict Transformation" by Bala Musa

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

If the language we use is the sense we bring, finding the right words to describe genocide is obviously a task of urgent importance. All the more so because of genocide’s double-nature as both the ultimate government crime, and also as a chimera -- a misty, shape-shifting, blood-red chiaroscuro that historically has confounded all attempts to define it. Maddeningly, the vague nature of the term is itself often used to obfuscate the crime it is meant to illuminate. “Is it a real genocide?” the diplomats, journalists, and public debate in endless rounds as the killing goes on and on and on.

I have encountered this often as a journalist covering the genocide of the Anuak tribe of Ethiopia. Virtually every attempt to get at the truth of the matter is usually deflected in some way, beginning but by no means ending with those responsible for the killings. The original deflecting impulse may originate somewhere deep and hidden in the human soul, but is crisply accomplished in the real world by a means that is no more complicated – or should I say as infinitely complicated? – as the use of words.

“It’s a tribal matter,” the Ethiopian government spokesman, Mesfin Andreas, said when I called him to ask about the killing of 425 Anuak by Ethiopian government troops on December 13, 2003. “Another African mess,” a U.S. State Department official told me a few days later, in response to the same question. “The world is filled with tragedies like this one, what am I supposed to do?” asked friends and readers, when they read my first accounts of the massacre of that day. Even the Anuak at times seemed blinded to reality by their own language formulas, which made the deliberate government slaughter of innocents sound as inevitable as the weather.

"Framing Genocide" offers a valuable resource to anyone wishing to become more skilful as a reader or writer about genocide. It offers a broad survey of the many forms of language that the mass media has used to describe – sometimes helpfully but usually not – how governments try to solve domestic problems, impose order, or secure control by wiping out entire cultures and peoples. The logic of the book is simple: If A) Language creates a necessarily simplified picture of the world that is so “real” that the public often responds to that picture , and not to actual reality; then B) The mass media is morally required to create a picture of the world that is harmfully distorting to the least degree possible, and instead accurately summarizes or symbolizes reality to the greatest degree; and C) Consumers of the mass media also need to be conscious of these various operations by which reality is either usefully or harmfully “framed.”

The book surveys several major genocides of recent decades (especially Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur), and offers a compendium of the various “frames” that journalists have used to describe, define and interpret those instances of mass murder. It suggest a typology of frames to explain why the mass media so often get the genocide story wrong, such as when the Western media uses language implying that African violence occurs in “outbreaks” and “flare-ups,” as opposed to suffering from longer-term wars that would require – if this wider frame was accepted – more sustained attention than occasional “parachute” journalism.

Every reader is invited to reflect on his or her own use of favorite frames, and whether he or she is using them skillfully and morally or not. Both frames, and types of frames, are collected. Types of mass media frames described include (but are by no means limited to) those of “episodic” versus “developmental” type; that range in size from “micro” to “meso” and “macro;” and that go by various names such as “persistent patterns of cognition,” “themes,” “pegs,” and (my personal favorite, from the writer Todd Gitlin) “little tacit theories.” Examples of actual frames that render enormous bodies of complex fact into inevitably inadequate summaries of genocide and its roots include “East versus West,” “North versus South,” “dictatorship versus democracy,” “Arab intransigence,” “Palestinian aggression,” “Israeli intolerance,” “Cold War,” and “War on Terror.”

As a journalist scanning these frames that obscure the complex reality of genocides, another word comes to mind. That word is “cliché.” It would appear that a crime as heinous as genocide can be erased from public consciousness with no heavier effort required than to utter a trite cliché or two – e.g., to call it an “outbreak” of “tribal violence.” More amazing still, these banalities of speech, holding the power to distract millions of people from present and living reality, are plucked straight from the bulging bins of ordinary clichés, euphemisms, and figures of speech from which our language of daily life is constructed. The genocide-hider called “ancient ethnic hatreds” turns out to be a stock-phrase no different in purely linguistic terms from such daily bromides as “we’re in a pickle,” “seeking greener pastures,” “do what it takes,” “dumb as a post,” and “dealt a fatal blow.”

Musa is aware of the irony, and offers necessary warnings. When journalists describe a half million genocide refugees huddling in desert camps as “a massive flood of humanity” or “a tide of suffering,” they may be doing actual damage with their color-on-deadline formulas. Because coiled inside those clichés are sinews of association that not only describe but also assess, evaluate, analyze, and pronounce on a situation. In the example just mentioned, for example, a reader is guided by the journalist to understand the refugees’ suffering as Biblically pre-ordained and as having reached a magnitude now so vast as to be beyond Earthly remedy or realistic help.

How remarkable it is that a single cliché – “African tribalism” – has wreaked such terrible damage to international understanding of Africa’s actual problems, not only with genocide but with such related problems as HIV-AIDS, economic growth, educational challenges, and the development of democractic societies based on the rule of law. It is heartbreaking to see also how this simple formulation continues to be used, fresh as a daisy after centuries of use, by despotic African regimes to judo-throw Western governments with a finger-flick, distracting them from all manner of evil. To date that single cliché – that one frame – is responsible for probably more harm in Africa, in terms of diverting possible aid from the outside world, than any other. Yet the mass media, the main purveyor of that frame to global audiences, still finds its use as an all-purpose explainer to be irresistible. Perhaps if journalists started to realize that “African tribalism” is nothing more than a dull cliché – along the lines of “bones of contention,” “oil-rich nations” and “raging debates” -- its use would abate somewhat.

The contribution of framing scholarship applied to the modern mass media is to show the moral dimensions of ordinary speech, i.e. the vernacular language used by journalists to convey to the masses that crucial daily narrative called “the news.” Little did we know, before these scholars showed us, how demotic speech can sometimes lead to such demonic ends. In any case, now that we know, it would only seem ethical to absorb that lesson and put it into action. This book illuminates many possible paths.

Copyright @ 2007 The McGill Report