Media Oversimplification of Conflicts

Jannie Botes

Assistant Professor, Program on Negotiations and Conflict Management, University of Baltimore

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

We always oversimplify because we have problems with space and airtime etcetera. So we have to over-simplify and that I think that has a very negative impact on how we cover conflict. At the same time, there was not a case of over-simplification. It was over-simplification in the sense that all I wanted them to say was, "Yes there are such people in South Africa, but they are maybe .5% of the 1%." In other words, unless you explain exactly by a numbered figure or other ways of impact, how the ARM was what percentage in size and impact and influence in white South Africa, you're really distorting the situation. You're offending somebody like me very much. Because people like me who are anti-apartheid, who are very unhappy with the situation in South Africa, really such people left the country. We are offended by that kind of conflict reporting because we felt that it distorted what was happening by not giving simple facts about how large this group was.

Q: The white anti-apartheid group?

A: That's right. I am talking about the white racist group. If you don't say what their size of impact is, but you just show nice pictures of them etcetera, etcetera, then you not only do injustice to the people who don't share that view, but you are really distorting that conflict of the view of everybody who watches that conflict who don't have that view that I had. The lesson there is that whenever you show dramatic pictures of people who are on one side of the conflict you have to provide context in terms of size, number, and impact. Otherwise you're distorting. You know saying we have a satellite phone and we call the BBC. And unless they put perspective as to our size and our number by interviewing us, they have elevated us and given us power that within that conflict we don't have. You have to be very careful therefore how you cover conflict is my point.

Q: If it's 1994 or 1995 and I hear about the Zapatista Revolution in Mexico and I think the whole country is in an uproar and I go to Mexico and I don't ever see a Zapatista, a conflict, or a gun fight except in the 100 yards of the country where there is a conflict, that's can easily be reported?

A: I mean for the same reason that there is always... People think of Africa as one big game reserve. Lions in the street, I don't think it's that true anymore, but 20 or 30 years ago I think it was more true because there are a lot of things the media distorted, not purposefully but just because the medium distorts. Think of the television pictures of a riot. The pictures do not show you what happens outside the picture. It only shows what's in the picture, like your example of the Zapatista. So unless you give the context of "this is what's happening in this region" how widespread it is etc. etc., you may think the whole of Mexico is now one big riot. So you have to tell people what happens outside of that frame or put that frame into the perspective of the larger. I think that is something that much of television can be accused of in terms of more brevity, space, what have you etcetera. That is not always provided.

I mean think of the huge impact that, as horrible as 9/11 was, people who haven't been to America don't understand what Manhattan looks like. You know they think the whole of New York; the whole of America is blowing up. You really have to provide context otherwise people just don't understand. It was psychologically the whole of America, we were all very much impacted, but physically it was not. And I think that's the distinction I'm making. The other point very quickly is pack journalism. The media jump on a conflict and then examples, the only thing that took Gary Condit off our screens was 9/11. We had Condit all the time till 9/11 came-it was a bigger conflict story. At the moment we have Kobe Bryant and we have had Scott Peterson for the last two-three months, this young man who was accused of murdering his pregnant wife in California. My point is simply that so all other conflicts that are worth talking about. Again, it is what is a story?