Fit to Print?

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Comparing Standards of News

One of the hardest things about living in a foreign country is understanding the news--even when it is in English. Some politician you have never heard of has given a news conference. Welfare benefits of bewildering complexity have become a hot issue. A television celebrity with an unpronounceable name has just gotten divorced. The most obvious reason for a failure to grasp the sense of news produced in other countries is a simple lack of familiarity with the politics and cultural life of those countries. But there is more to this disconnection than simple unfamiliarity. A careful look at news stories from around the globe suggests that differences in the media in various countries can also stem from deeper divergences in philosophy and worldview. Moreover, there are signs that this gap in fundamental perceptions is closing far less rapidly than many people in Europe and North America probably assume, despite the superficial impression of uniformity caused by the spread of such technologies as cable televisio n and the Internet.

The nations of Africa provide many examples of this misperception. How might a Westerner react to a media report about an epidemic of witch hunting, a story carried in some of the main Zambian newspapers in 1999? How about the exploits of a warlord-a dwarf named Singbe--who was said to have magical powers enabling him to lasso people several hundred yards away, as was reported in the Sierra Leonean press in the same decade? Or the vampire stories that appear quite often in the Tanzanian press? In all three cases, these events are not presented as oddball stories but are offered as genuine stories of substantive value. These are stories that a citizen of any North Atlantic country would hardly take seriously, yet each has all the hallmarks of news, having been written in a conventional fashion by some of the leading press organs of its respective country.

It is instructive to consider this phenomenon not simply as a lesson in the intricacies of African media but also as an entry point into bettering our understanding of the media of Western nations. Considering the acceptance of these bizarre stories from faraway actually throws some light on the persistence of UFO stories in some US media or the prominence of satanic abuse stories in even the most respectable British newspapers in the 1980s and 1990s.

What is News?

The determination of what constitutes news is chiefly made by journalists, editors, and politicians, all acting in an informal collusion with the consumers of news programs, articles, or items. There has to be some degree of consensus across all the parties involved that a given story is indeed news. In order to qualify, a text has to be assumed by its audience to represent reality. One part of making a story credible news is transmitting it in an agreed form (normally electronic or print media), since even a newsworthy story can only become real news when it is published or aired in the right place. One defining feature of news, then, is the medium or form in which it is presented. This is rapidly changing as new technologies emerge, but older forms can also prove highly resilient. In many African nations, for example, people continue to give considerable credence to unofficial, oral forms of information. The reason for this is not only the relative scarcity of newspapers but also the continent's vibrant or al tradition. While some may call it merely rumor, it is nevertheless a medium for the transmission of news, since many Africans regard such information as "hard" or authoritative--often to the dismay of news managers and government spokespeople.

A news story also has to take a particular form to be recognized as legitimate. Every media professional knows that information has to be presented in a way that the public will recognize and accept, in effect because it fits into one or another of a range of news archetypes. …