In the wake of the controversial Stop Kony video campaign aimed at accused African war criminal Joseph Kony, which has garnered more than 78 million YouTube views and counting, Globe and Mail writer Simon Houpt suggests that the term “mainstream media” is now obsolete.
Maybe a corollary issue is that effectively-distributed propaganda, even the well-meaning kind, can still trump journalism in garnering the public’s attention.
A number of videos and blogs picked up on the notion (in the Kony video) that the mainstream media had, yet again, failed us. All of which means it’s time we killed the mainstream media.
The term, that is.
Because what exactly is the mainstream media? Is it CNN, which regularly pulls in fewer than one million North American viewers in prime time? Or Fox News, which positions itself as an outsider and whose pundits (including Sarah Palin) decry “the lamestream media,” even as it scores an audience triple that of CNN? Is it the Huffington Post, or the traditional wire services and legacy media outlets on which that popular website bases so much of its content? (More new media-old media confusion: On Monday, rumours swirled that CNN was negotiating to buy the blog Mashable.) What do we call The New York Times or The Guardian newspaper when they work with the whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks?
The taxonomy is a bit confusing, isn’t it?
It’s clear that what used to be known as the mass media doesn’t have the audience share it did in pre-Internet or even pre-cable TV times.
CTV National News (I work for the Toronto website of CTVNews.ca, although I’m currently on medical leave) still draws an audience of over one million people nightly, but 30 years ago, that figure would have been two million.
In Canada, you don’t have to wait until the day’s end for a wrap-up of national events. Couch potatoes can watch the news unfold all day long on the cable channels. There is CTV News Channel and CBC News Network for cable news, let alone American stations. Now the Sun News Network is adding its brand of “hard news and straight talk” to the mix.
The myriad online options in this day and age mean people can also contribute to news distribution, not just being a passive consumer.
The de-massification of the news media means that on occasion, a slickly produced, slightly propagandistic video can explode in the public consciousness — as the Kony video did — in a way that a traditional news story might not. It may be the most viral video of all time.
According to the Globe and Mail, the group Invisible Children publicized it through social media and got boosts in that arena from high-profile celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Oprah Winfrey (see this March 9 story, Five factors that made the Kony2012 video go viral). But let’s not forget that as the video picked up traction, it got additional publicity from mainstream news coverage.
What frustrated many journalists is that there has been news coverage of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. The guerrilla group has been accused of taking thousands of children and making them into either soldiers or sex slaves.
But as the Globe and other news organizations have noted, Kony and the LRA are no longer a factor in Uganda, having been chased out in 2006. The LRA’s remnants are mainly found in the northeastern jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Despite that, a little-known aid group can spend millions on a video and make him a global story, even though there are military forces already seeking to do what the video asks — see Kony captured and brought before the International Criminal Court.*
* Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders argued on March 10 (The Horror and the Hashtag) that the ICC likely set back peace efforts in Uganda in 2005 by threatening to prosecute Kony.
One advantage the Kony video had over an individual work of journalism, besides celebrity-driven attention, is amplification by multiple platforms and news organizations. In this day and age, it’s a rare work of journalism on a has-been African guerrilla leader that would capture the attention of other news organizations.
However, in this case, the virality of the video became news in itself, rather than the subject matter.
One aspect of the video’s virality lay in the fact that it offered people a chance to be a part of something. News doesn’t usually do that.
Saunders wrote the following:
It is almost touching that millions of North Americans developed a sudden interest in northern Ugandan affairs at some point Wednesday afternoon (March 7 – Bill D.) and decided, as their finger slid between the latest app and the hockey scores, to hire someone to take care of Joseph Kony.
Did you click? You’re hardly alone. Who could resist retweeting, Like-ing, or +1-ing a salvo of memes against the most guilty living figure in the world, firing a binary barrage of #stopkony hashtags into the veldt? For this was surely a binary issue: The absolute evil of one pitted against the pure compassion and undeniable enthusiasm of millions.
The article exploring why the video went viral offered this:
Ask people to join a movement
Marketers don’t just want you to buy their product any more; they want you to join a movement. Occupy Wall Street put a brand on the disenchantment of millions. The project known as It Gets Better, which sought to raise the self-esteem of gay, lesbian and transgender youth, caught fire in the fall of 2010 in part because many in the general public were upset about a rash of suicides within the LGBTQ community.
Kony2012 shows us sweeping, inspiring shots of youthful crowds who have already joined the Stop Kony movement; how can we resist? “This is very much in line with a lot of the Occupy stuff we’ve seen,” says Dré Labre, creative director with the Toronto office of the ad agency Rethink. “It’s Occupy Kony.” Still, you probably have to pick your moments: you can’t call on people if they’re tired from the last big cause. Mr. Labre said one of his co-workers floated the possibility of a “cause gap.”
Ivor Tossell offered the following in a March 13 Globe and Mail column (“Is this about Joseph Kony, or online activism?“):
If you sit down to watch the film that’s so effectively turned a local menace into a global figure, you’ll notice something remarkable: Of the film’s 30 minutes, only about a third is spent explicitly describing Mr. Kony himself. The remainder is dedicated to whipping the viewer into a frenzy about, well, us.
“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come; whose time is now,” read the white-on-black titles that open the film.
“There are more people on Facebook than there were on the planet 200 years ago,” intones the filmmaker. “Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and to connect, and now we see each other. We hear each other.”
We like being part of something bigger than ourselves — particularly when it costs us little in time or effort.
Journalism, by its nature, isn’t designed to compete in that arena. It seeks to inform, not to sway people to action.
Because most news video is kept proprietary, it has higher barriers to virality than something posted to YouTube, the world’s dominant online video platform. It is also time-sensitive by nature, while a documentary such as Stop Kony is more long-tail.
My advice to Houpt and other frustrated journalists is get used to the power shift. The news media aren’t as collectively influential as they were more than a generation ago, before the Intertubes allowed celebrities to become news editors.
When something such as Stop Kony does emerge, we still have an important role to play in fact-checking its claims. Hopefully the public will still be paying attention and not have already moved on to the next shiny thing that is trending.