The bloodiest protests so far in 2016 took place over the weekend in Ethiopia but if you were watching television, checking the trending hashtags on Twitter or reading Google News you probably didn’t hear much about them. Even if you followed the Twitter feeds for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International you wouldn’t have heard that dozens of protesters had been shot and killed by police during anti-government protests.
The dearth of coverage remains so bad that as of 12:00 GMT on Tuesday August 9thBBC, CNN, CCTV, DWTV, RT, and Euronews have collectively uploaded over 100 news clips to their youtube accounts in the past 24 hours and none of them even mentions Ethiopia. Al Jazeera English (AJE) published a brief video segment on Youtube of the weekend’s horrific events but the rest of the global television news media has kept mum about the protests.
The lack of coverage of major protests by global television news broadcasters should give media scholars pause. This situation should encourage researchers to reflect on some of the long standing discussions about geographic coverage bias in news reporting. All too often students, researchers and policy makers seem to unquestioningly believe the arguments of neoliberal and technological utopians who say that we live in a “flattened,” globalized world where ubiquitous smart phones and internet will ensure that all significant news stories will be treated equally and receive their fair share of coverage by global media organizations. That world is clearly not the world Ethiopians are living in today but who is to say whether or not it might become the world of tomorrow.
Questions about what, when, and which protests get televised by global television media networks are all relevant to the study of contemporary journalism and protests. These empirical questions are some of those being addressed by researchers as part of the Screening Protest Project and ones that scholars around the world should continue to explore.
The live broadcast of the events following the shooting of Philando Castiles in his car in St. Paul, Minnesota was one of several videos depicting police violence against African Americans that became known to the American and global public this summer. The video became powerful, possibly because it contributed to force elites such as president Obama and governor Mark Dayton to address the systematic brutality and discrimination targeted against the African American minority, and for channeling support to the Black Lives Matter movement. On a more notable level, the video, through its liveness, contributed to dissolve the spatial boundaries between here and there and allow girlfriend Diamond Reynolds to mediate the experience in a state of what in media studies is known as despatialized simultaneity. Where at least parts of her experience became the experience of distant others. Yet while the despatialized simultaneity may be one of the dimensions helping us understand the power of the video, we can substantiate that process in more detail. For the experience does arguably not just involve the witnessing of what happened, the liveness also entails a dimension of narrative suspense, of not knowing what will come next, which allow us to also join in the fear, sorrow and outrage with Diamond Jackson for what might possibly happen. Another important feature of the video is thus that it lingers between the past, the present and what Jerome Bruner has referred to as the Subjunctive – the uncertain but possible future. Thus the video, apart from allowing us to bear witness to this tragic event, also bestows us with an agency of sorts, which does not necessarily end with the end of the video. The American anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly has in a similar vein argued that lived experiences of great uncertainty, while certainly being a cause for anxiety, also bear with them the possibility for creativity, experiment and hope, and thus allowing people to act upon and respond to history rather than only being its marginalized bystanders and/or innocent victims, such as Philando Castiles. Creativity, experiment and the hope that tomorrow could be different are arguably essential features of struggles for social and political change, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. From these perspectives I think the video of Philando Castiles can tell us at least two things about the role of media in these processes. First that, as institutional and technological change within media has and continues to bring us up to speed with the transpiring events of the present, we are increasingly faced with the uncertainty of the future and thereby encouraged to engage in creative, experimental and hopeful imaginations of possible futures. Secondly that, therefore concepts such as narrative suspense and the Subjunctive arguably become all the more necessary to use not only in in the exploration of fictional, but also factual accounts of reality.