For the majority of people around the world, the universe is defined by the journey between home, the school drop-off and the trip to work. They are cocooned from the real world by a system that protects them from outside harm. So people rely on what they read in newspapers, watch on the news or access on their mobile devices to know what is going on in that ‘real world’. And sadly, international coverage has been steadily declining in the media. It is this absence of information about foreigners and foreign places that leads to stereotypical views and narrow opinions.
South Africa has clearly been suffering from this lately and, although our economy is lagging behind expectations, the narrowing of news is a global trend.
Over the past months, the goodwill built up from the successful hosting of the Fifa World Cup has all but eroded. As a frequent traveller, I have never had to defend South Africa as much as I have over the past few months.
Our police shoot demonstrators and, consequently, our largest industry suffers tremendous damage. Our police ‘force’ (pun intended) drag a suspect behind a police van (a foreigner, nogal) and he dies. A national hero mistakes his girlfriend for a criminal and shoots her. At the subsequent bail hearing, the police are shown to be incompetent.
A country’s reputation rests on four pillars: politics, the economy, nature/geography and the social sphere. We are now portrayed as weak in three out of the four and there is not a lot of leverage for South Africa at the moment. I am not blaming the international media for this. After all, the incidents cited are relevant news stories and were significant in our own media. From this, we will have to produce something spectacular to break a cyclical global news stream that is usually only disrupted by catastrophes.
What worries me is the focus of our own media, and how it influences our opinion of our country. I am concerned that with all the doom and gloom we have become desensitised and have lost the ability to recognise the pieces of ‘news gold’ that glisten among the negative stories. After all, can it really be gold? It must be fake, surely?
For example, take a look on how we report on foreigners usually as either criminals or victims of crime. But do we report on the contributions of foreigners to our economy? No we don’t. My local tailor, a Malawian, has contributed more to the community than the hordes of local ‘gardeners’. He is not taking away anyone’s job, nor is he a threat to anyone. He provides a service and is an asset we should treasure and celebrate, and encourage South Africans to emulate.
Australian comedian Sami Shah makes this point: “If the guy who is taking away your job has been on a boat for the last month, lost half his family on the way, can’t speak the language and has spent two years in immigration detention, it might be time to update your LinkedIn profile.”
By depriving the audience of an international perspective, we in the media are depriving them of a benchmark: who does better, and who does worse. No one benefits from a lack of information.
We should come down from our high horses. The world does not owe us, and someone, somewhere will be offering something that will be better, cheaper and more convenient. Let’s start by introducing that someone to our society, report about them, so that we can learn from them and build on what they do and innovate. We need more, not less, coverage of foreign countries. It will broaden our horizons and change our behaviour. This, in turn, will affect how the rest of the world perceives us.