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How The Media Influences Our View Of Developing  Countries

Poverty, plight and political disarray: these are the images that are often associated with developing countries. The reason for this is a selective narrative that dominates mainstream media, shaping our view of countries we otherwise have no personal experience with. We often depend on the media to provide us with information - but it's one dimensional storytelling means that we often receive what is ultimately very warped representation of its subject.

Common mediums like television play a central role by relying on hard-hitting imagery and basic information. A primitive village, a crumbling war-zone and a silent, suffering child make regular appearances, and their long life-span on our screens have embedded these images into our collective consciousness. Supercuts and grainy images are ineffective in portraying much depth or subtlety behind a news story, and often simply serve as quick-access sound grabs. While of course there are programmes that offer more in-depth discussions, these are often only sought out by individuals, not by the public majority, meaning that other stories remain unheard of by most.

Flickr | Steve Evans | Madagascar KidsAside from news outlets, regular charity appeals, who rely even more heavily on such forcible imagery, also feed into this narrative. At a basic level, charities need to prove that there is need - consequently, they must highlight the negative in the most effective way, namely by tugging at people’s heartstrings. In a way, what is happening here is that plight is being transformed into a commodity, something that can be marketed to the public. The issue here is not that people are trying to help; rather it’s the fact that even though such organisations are highlighting legitimate problems, they have become the face of the country to the outside world. Countries in which such adversity occurs largely don’t receive any other coverage in mass media, meaning that such appeals end up being a singular source of information to those who see it. Such selective broadcasting ends up providing a very one-dimensional view of an entire country, oftentimes even an entire continent.

A further issue arises from such misrepresentation, namely the division between “us” and “them”. Visual images can be very effective in making that contrast very clear. When a Western celebrity visits an impoverished village, the message that is being sent is that it must be up to us to help them. And whilst this may be done with good intentions, such a narrative completely strips those receiving aid of any sort of agency, painting them as passive recipients, when in fact there may be local initiatives driven by those very same communities. Not to say that all foreign organisations function like this - whilst these are basic level examples, there are also sophisticated initiatives which stress a more sustainable bottom-up approach and work closely with local organisations who have a better idea of the aid recipient’s needs. Nevertheless, it is the former who dominate the media.

Flickr | My Name is Rom™ | Africa Fighting Below the Line - Print Ad (Love)Unsurprisingly, media-born misconceptions eventually spill out of our screens and into our daily lives. From ignorant remarks to blatant stereotyping, the images that we have been fed affect those who hail from developing countries, particularly those who live abroad and face a society whose source of information has been limited. For someone who grew up in the bustling city of Lagos, for instance, being associated with a far off tribal village makes absolutely no sense and can be incredibly frustrating. Furthermore, it makes a judgement on different ways of life, deeming a certain lifestyle, whether it be tribal or cosmopolitan, to be better or worse - when in reality it is just different. Prejudice can feed into all strands of life, including career prospects. Whether it’s getting a job or launching a business - a country’s reputation can play a surprisingly big role. Take the flip-side: Germany, for instance, has a reputation for high-quality engineering products. A German business can therefore draw on its image in order to gain a few plus points in the international market, just by citing its country of origin - and as a result of this, this perception is re-iterated across the media, using such positive associations for products ranging from cars to shampoo. A business from a country with a negative stigma, on the other hand, will likely face larger hurdles, even though such doubts may be completely unsubstantial.

This imbalance of media coverage in the international community highlights a lot of deep-rooted problems, including remnants of the long-outdated narrative of Africa as “the dark continent” or the orientalist “exoticism” of the Middle East and parts of Asia. Whilst this is a complex problem that doesn’t just have one solution, an important step towards equalising the issue is to give developing countries a voice in mainstream media. As we have seen with news outlets such as Al Jazeera, non-Western broadcasters can grow to play a much needed role in international media and can offer their own input on a more well-rounded portrayal of their regional base. This gives a valuable chance to highlight a country’s accomplishments and potential: from cutting-edge technological advances to rising education levels and economic growth, developing countries can also be the source of good news. A new international order of information is needed in order to represent not only what remains to be done but also what has been accomplished.

Sure, bad news sells well. But reinforcing the image of far off, distant localities who do nothing but suffer does not actually benefit those who truly are suffering. In our globalised world, it is counterproductive to still rely on sensationalist yet shallow broadcasting, because it only deepens the divide and hinders real progress. Raising awareness about issues like poverty and conflict are undeniably important, and the international community should work together to alleviate such tragedy. But in doing so, developing countries should be able to retain their agency and identity - to have their story told by themselves, and not by others.

By Laura Hallensleben - Online Journalism Intern

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