CMFS PhD Bernadine Jones talks Western-centrism at Future of Journalism conference

20 Sep 2017 - 11:00


CFMS PhD student Bernadine Jones recently attended the Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff. Here is her report: "The title of the bi-annual conference struck me when I first read it: “The Future of Journalism: Journalism in a Post-Truth Age?” The UK news is awash with the debate on Fake News, Post-Truth, Brexit, Trump, and this conference speaks to the heart of this conversation: the journalists themselves.

The conference was designed to be a meeting between professional journalists and academic scholars, and so the panels were designed with “take away” aspects in mind: how do we fix this Fakeness, how can we achieve objectivity (or is that a myth), and what are we going to do about the crisis in the newsrooms?

I approached this Western-centric meeting wearing my African scholar hat, as most of the presenters and scholars were from European or American universities and newsrooms, and there was little African or South African representation. When I presented on the first morning of the conference, I was in the company of some big names both in the audience and in the line up. Intimidated, I followed an excellent presentation from an American scholar on the effect of social media on public opinion.

I presented my paper on the 1994 South African election coverage on international and South African news, wherein I focused on the semiotics of the news coverage. I argued that mediatised reporting played a part in the fixation on the visuals of violence and in portraying the IFP as bloodthirsty savages. I ended the talk with a reminder that mediatised reporting in political communication is not a new concept and has been around in the non-West for decades.

Many journalists in the audiences were dumbfounded that their news organisations (such as a retired BBC journalist) had presented South Africa in this way, finding it hard to believe such images were possible. “I simply don’t recall the BBC portraying the election this way”, one suggested, while another from ITN asked probing questions about the difference between the SABC coverage and international coverage. I answered as best I could, requesting that the journalists read my forthcoming papers based on my PhD that tackle these particular notions. I learned, while standing at the podium, that sometimes Western journalists are unable or unwilling to see, or have not yet seen how their reporting differs from the local reporting style, and why this is a problem. I realised then that this is a gap in both education and scholarship, and hope to play a part in tackling this in the future.

The rest of the conference was heavily focused on the role of social media and digital journalism in reporting politics, which I found interesting from a non-Western perspective. Many of the discussions took for granted easy access to digital resources, and assumed print, television, and radio news to be “outmoded” and not worth studying. This differs wildly from the research we do at the Centre for Film and Media Studies. While presenters or panels were not especially ignorant of the non-Western experience of journalism, African and particularly black voices were noticeably lacking in the conversation. How does the non-West experience Fake News? Is Post-Truth simply a Western, Euro-American fixation? The opening plenary by Silvio Waisbord touched on this argument: He said, “welcome to the party, America” when talking about Fake News. In Latin America journalism has been plagued by Fakeness for decades.

Which brings me onto my ultimate take-away from this conference. Echoing Claire Wardle’s entertaining and enlightening plenary on the first day, there are “levels of fake news”. To think of it as a binary, as a catch phrase, undermines the severity of the threat to journalism (which is why she refuses to use the term and instead says “F*** News”, thus affecting all presenters during the conference who similarly refused the term). The levels seem to range from an outright lie, through to exercises in memesis, to a kind of bias where news uses, to quote Scottish poet and critic Andrew Lang, “statistics as a drunk uses a lamp-post: for support rather than illumination”."

Bernadine Jones

PhD Candidate 2014-2017

Supervisors: Dr Martha Evans and Dr Wallace Chuma


Aside: I am grateful to the financial support of the Centre in allowing me to attend this conference.