Who, what, when, where and why? Geographic Places and Journalists' relationship to them in Transnational News
Kate Wright * The representation of geographic place is a crucial feature of news journalism as can be seen by the way in which Journalism trainees are drilled to ask the question ‘where?’ alongside ‘what, when, who, how and why?’ But what are places? What are journalists doing when they represent them? We don't always have a terribly clear understanding of these issues in Journalism Studies. We need to. Because if we don't, then how can we hope to contribute to policy debates about which places should be represented more often, what ‘good practice’ as regards the representation of place might be, and which kinds of journalistic strategies and politico-economic structures might make this possible? Part of our difficulty appears to stem from that age-old problem - the practice/theory divide. On the one hand, we have professional journalists, who tend to talk about answering the question ‘where?’ in terms of accuracy. This seems to imply two things: One, that places have an objective existence outside of their representation in news, and this is usually expressed in material terms And two that it is possible to somehow pinpoint the identity of a place in language, so that a large audience - which may contain many different social and political groups - all understand what you are talking about. This was very much the angle I came from initially, because my own background as a journalist was at the BBC World Service, which has 180 million listeners. That’s an awful lot of different political and social groups. I felt the responsibility of talking meaningfully about place to those audiences keenly, not least because of one night shift when I was working on the Africa bulletin desk and I was passed a single, crumpled sheet of paper which had been clearly torn from an exercise book. On it was written two lines in Lingala, one of the languages spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Underneath my colleague had helpfully

2 provided a French translation. It said simply ‘Thank you BBC for letting me know when it is safe for my wife to visit her family in such and such a town. I do not want to happen to her what happened to my sister’. I am sure that I don't need to spell out to such a media-literate audience what generally happens to women when they are caught by militia in the DRC in the middle of a bout of fighting. So identifying places in a clear and reliable manner in news is important, and journalists’ are onto something when they stress the role of materiality in this. Because however technologically sophisticated human beings may like to think they have become, we are still embodied creatures, who are physically located in material places where we live, work and socialise. And it is the context of this materiality which we often need to make sense of the affective, economic and cultural attachments which people have to places. So being able to identify the material location in which events occur is a crucial part of journalists’ ability to explain who is affected by certain events, and how they are affected. But on the other hand, there is a longstanding scholarly tradition which explores the constructive qualities or capacities of journalism in relation to place. Shome and Hegde, for example, build on Anderson’s seminal work by seeing journalism as participating in the process of ‘imagining worlds’. Critics like Lilie Chouliaraki seek to explore the ways in which news constructs emotive relationships between distant others; and scholars, like Simon Cottle, argue that transnational news in particular should seek to counter some of the worst effects of neoliberal 'globalisation’ by rendering visible and audible those who are often excluded and silenced. Such critics also have a point, because news clearly does offer audiences a kind of schema or mind-map about which places matter, why they matter, how much they matter and who matters in relation to them. And whereas there are clearly no straightforward links between audience reception, perception and action, it is possible that news could alter the dispositions which audience members take towards particular places and the people who live in them. Indeed, there would be very little point in ‘doing’ news at all, if it had no potential to be involved in social change. So even the most die-hard hack must admit that news does have some constructive as well as referential qualities – that it participates in some ways in the world upon which it reports. In addition more experience in practice often teaches us that answering the question 'where?' accurately can be a very tricky business indeed. This is most obviously the case when places are the subject of territorial disputes, as is the case with the Western Sahara or the Golan Heights – or Derry stroke Londonderry. These disputes over ownership may also be bound up with the ways in which places have different kinds of

3 meanings for ethnic or religious groups - Derry/Londonderry is again another fine example, but we might also think about Ayers Rock in Australia, Cape Reinga in NZ or Temple Mount in Jerusalem. So how do we square the potentially plural identities of place with the need to communicate about them meaningfully to large audiences? How do we account for the constructive qualities of news journalism alongside its referential qualities? And what might journalistic ‘accuracy’ actually mean in all of this? I think we can benefit by drawing from the work of the human geographer, Doreen Massey, here. This is because Massey conceptualises places as being at least partially ‘open’, in the sense that their identities are constantly re/defined or re/produced in relation to one another through flows of goods, people, and ideas. Since such flows are multiple and fluid, the meanings of place are also likely to be multiple and mutable. News itself involves flows of ideas embedded in images, sounds and words, and these are dependent upon other kinds of flows of people, goods and ideas, which relate to the processes of news production and reception. So news can be expected to participate in the continual re/construction of how places relate to each other in a number of ways. But that doesn't mean that journalistic accuracy is a meaningless concept. This is because the social practices involved in re/producing the relations of significance between places tend to be structured, albeit in a very disjunctive manner. As Appadurai puts it, translocal flows have ‘different speeds, axes, points of origin and termination, and varied relationships to institutional structures’. Such structured flows also tend to have material dimensions. For example, flight paths, railways, and roads facilitate the flows of some people, goods and ideas between particular places, whilst visa requirements, official checkpoints, walls and national borders may inhibit or block them. Over time, these structured translocal flows tend stabilise and even entrench the kinds and degrees of significance (or insignificance) which places have for one another. Translocal flows also shape the built environments of places themselves. Think for example, of the ways in which the flows involved in trade have shaped Antwerp or Venice, or the ways in which flows of pilgrims have shaped Mecca or Santiago della Compostela. So we can say that the structuring of translocal flows and the kinds of material, built environments which grow up over time to accompany them, give places, and the relations which they have to others, relatively enduring characteristics. These relatively enduring characteristics effectively limit the range of meanings to which places are usually subjected. In so doing, they make it possible to talk

4 meaningfully about places to different kinds of social groups. For example, Northern Ireland may be seen as a British colony or an integral part of the UK, but I have yet to hear it described as an outpost of Togo or an integral part of Kazakhstan. So we can see journalists' identification of place as an exercise in referring to the power structures which already exist with some validity, as well as an exercise in reimagining or reproducing power relations between places. For this reason, I would suggest that we might usefully reconceptualise journalistic accuracy as involving explaining what the range of meanings relating to particular geographic places are, exploring the validity of those meanings, and reflecting upon what this has to do with the operation of power. Such an approach clearly involves abandoning any hope of ‘referring to’ places in the sense of having a one-to-one correspondence with them, it also involves abandoning the idea that places themselves are simply material objects, which are wholly separate from news discourse. But it does provide a theoretical basis upon which journalists might hope to disprove falsehoods, and, as Seaton put it, to challenge the assumptions and cultural fantasies of audiences. But here is the rub. The same structured translocal flows which limit and stabilise the meanings of places - so making it possible for journalists to talk about them in a meaningful fashion - also make it extremely difficult for journalists to report on some places at all. For news-making is still heavily reliant on the very material business of shifting people and kit to particular places within limited budgets and timescales. This involves engaging with transport infrastructure, and it is here that we can see the ‘disjunctive’ nature of translocal flows very clearly. For not only are some places largely disconnected from the main centres of transnational news production in the UK and North America, they may also be disconnected from places which are physically close by. Ungar and Gergen illustrated this beautifully when they pointed out that when the river crossing between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville was closed, the only reliable way for reporters to make the journey was often to fly ‘to Paris and back’. That the only way for journalists to cross a river three miles wide was to take a round trip of over seven thousand miles speaks volumes about the power of Empire to continue to organise the relations of significance between places. This example should also impress upon us that exhorting individual journalists or news organisations to represent a more diverse range of places is not enough, because it grossly underestimates how difficult it may be for them to do so. Indeed, journalists working in transnational news often seem to be

5 caught in a vicious circle where the very places which their audiences know least about, are exactly the ones which are hardest for them to get to. This in turn flags up how under-theorised everyday news ‘logistics’ has been in Journalism studies. For even journalists who want to challenge the dominance of élite countries and urban centres in news coverage have to re/negotiate deeply entrenched relations between places and the people living in them not only in terms of the kinds of news values and narratives which they use, but also in terms of the most basic, practical issues involved in news-making. Indeed, I would argue that it doesn’t make much sense to analyse these issues as if they were separate from one another. Certainly, journalists working in transnational news discuss them together, in relation to other kinds of power structures relating to their audiences and their organisations. For example, I moved on to work on Newshour, which is the English language flagship of World Service, and this has a very different kind of audience from the African language services, because the people who listening to Newshour are largely urban, wealthy, well-educated élites, including senior international diplomats, UN officials and national politicians. On this programme, my editorial team often used the short-hand term, ‘the Chad factor’ about particular events. This meant several things. Firstly, that it would be unlikely to be considered important by our audiences, so it would take a lot of skill to rescue such a story from being perceived by news audiences as irrelevant and uninteresting. Secondly, a story which had ‘the Chad factor’ involved locations which were costly and time-intensive for our journalists to travel to cover, so our managers would be unlikely to approve such a trip. Thirdly, becoming overly preoccupied with stories which had 'the Chad factor' was widely recognised as career suicide - because those kinds of stories would rarely be chosen to form a lead sequence – which is what got you noticed by senior management. So even trying to cover stories which had 'the Chad factor' was recognised as being a demanding and thankless activity. But referring to ‘the Chad factor’ also meant something else - a profound and nagging feeling that never covering places like Chad was somehow wrong - both unprofessional and unjust. Unprofessional because we were producing something which purported to be 'global news' and we knew full well that it wasn't. And unjust because many of our listeners were the very elites with the power to make farreaching social change possible. So we were aware that in continuing to exclude marginalised places, and the voices of those who live in them, we were perpetuating a situation in which these elites discussed transnational problems and solutions within a kind of closed system.

6 Why didn’t we just access local journalists or other media actors electronically rather than trying to physically travel to such places ourselves? There is clearly some potential here which has been discussed by others at this conference, but I think its important to stress that although the circuits of electronic exchanges needed to participate in transnational mediation don’t map exactly onto those involved in transport, they are still structured by the principles of what Massey calls ‘power geometry’. That is to say, they link some people and places and not others in ways which lead to a profoundly uneven distribution of media access in both socio-economic and geographic terms. This is not to imply that the inequality currently involved in mass mediation could somehow be overcome by addressing the ‘digital divide’, despite the excitement in some journalistic circles about the growth of mobile phone ownership in poorer countries, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa. For the distribution of the kind of smartphones needed to participate in most kinds of media production and reception is still restricted to a small group of very wealthy individuals who live in the capitals of some countries. Moreover, telecommunications technology itself is far from politically neutral: being conceptualised according to social norms or ‘imaginaries’ which lead to it working in some ways rather than others. It also commits those who use it to ongoing financial outlay and to accompanying, commercial understandings about property rights and trade. Finally, it takes particular kinds of cultural capital to use the tools of electronic communication in ways which will be acceptable to journalists working in transnational news and which will be understood by their audiences. Most obviously, the English language still dominates both internet communication, and mainstream transnational news. So where does this leave us? It shows us that we can come up with a theoretical model of place which helps us account for both the potentially plural identities of place and the need to identify places meaningfully, as well as helping us explore the referential and constructive qualities of news representations. But this same model also prompts us to adopt a much less media-centric approach to power, for clearly journalists cannot singlehandedly alter dominant relations between places and the people who live in them; counteract the worst effects of neo-liberal globalisation; or ‘re/imagine worlds’ in other ways. Indeed, even when journalists want to try and contribute towards moving towards those goals, the most basic processes involved in news production force them to rely upon profoundly unjust translocal structures. So if we want academic theory to speak meaningfully to journalistic practice, we need to first, think carefully about the kinds of structures which we include and exclude from our critiques of news representations of place. Secondly, we

7 need to accept that, in the absence of profound global change, journalists’ attempts to renegotiate the relations between places and the people who live in them are likely to be riddled with dilemmas and compromises; deeply embedded in the practices of social and economic élites; and therefore liable to produce very mixed consequences.

* Kate Wright: University of Roehampton, London, UK, Journalism and News Media, Faculty Member. Paper given to MeCCSA conference, University of Ulster, Derry/Londonderry 11 Jan 2013.

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