Vice Magazine’s Liberia Documentary Comes Under Fire
Filed Under: Media & Tech, World | Posted: 02/07/2010 at 11:34AM
Comments | Region: Liberia
By: Ruthie Ackerman
Story originally published on Ceasefire Liberia
We all know the routine: the journalist, who is viewed as the authority (traditionally white and male), goes into a community and comes back with a story to share with the world. His version of events, experienced through his eyes only, is considered objective reporting for all to read and believe.
What makes (the best of) today’s journalism different is that citizen journalists the world over have the opportunity to share their hyperlocal, interactive, personal portrayals of their communities, venturing into places that traditional journalists wouldn’t have the time or money or access to cover.
I have seen the best of what hyperlocal, citizen journalism has to offer on the blog project I founded, Ceasefire Liberia. The Ceasefire blog is a space for Liberian bloggers from Liberia and the diaspora to share stories about their lives, travels, families and communities that would be of interest to readers around the world. Some bloggers on the site have written about challenges in their communities, such as Nat Nyuan-Bayjay’s piece about the lack of toilets in the township of Clara Town. Others, like Saki G, have documented their community’s efforts to fight climate change. Still others examined how the massacre in neighboring Guinea impacted Liberians across the border.
Which is why when Shane Smith, co-founder of Vice magazine, visited Liberia to “report” on an eight-part series about the most horrific and vulgar parts of a country still struggling to get back on its feet after 14-years of civil war, I didn’t blink an eye. This is not the case for the many Liberiaphiles, living both inside and outside Liberia, who have railed against Vice and Smith for their one-sided, fear-inducing, wrong-headed portrayal of Liberia (There are many responses to Smith…a few are here, here and here). But I don’t think getting angry is the answer. Instead Vice’s piece makes me feel even more firmly committed to the Ceasefire Liberia project and the bloggers who shine a spotlight on their country and communities.
If you ask me whether I think that by only focusing on the depravity and deprivation in Liberia Smith did not give a full and fair representation of Liberia, my answer is yes. But do I think that Smith’s reporting takes away from the reporting being done day after day by local Liberians who know and love and see the realities on the ground in Liberia? No. In fact, I believe that the only solution to combating misrepresentations of Liberia is to counter Vice’s series with stories written by Liberian journalists and media-makers. Because the only way to drown out the noise of the misinformed and mis-intentioned is by telling the truth — and leaving it up to the reader to decide which information to consume.
“This has left me seething,” wrote journalist Kate Thomas on a listserv for Liberian expats last week. “‘Documentaries’ like this widen the gap between Liberia and ‘the west’ and discourage understanding and interest in the burgeoning tourism industry.” While I hear what Kate is saying I have to believe that Vice is not the one-stop-shop for all Liberia information (or maybe my faith in humanity runs too deeply). If someone was really looking for information about Liberia they would go to one of the many blogs written by knowledgeable expats (such as Shelby Grossman’s, which is enjoyable and smart), or to Ceasefire Liberia, or to The New Liberian, written and edited by Liberian powerhouse Semantics King, or to the myriad newspapers, internet articles or books, which all offer well-rounded views on the country and its people. The beauty of the internet and Web 2.0 is that it gives readers access to many sources of information on which to base their worldviews.
To be fair, Smith’s reporting, while exaggerated and embellished, isn’t wholly incorrect. There are homeless, unemployed, drug-addicted and criminal parts of Liberian society (like any society), which I and others have reported on. Rape and lack of opportunities are challenges in Liberia that many have tackled. And the truth is that many of the ex-combatants who fought in the war have slipped through the cracks and have now ended up on the streets begging for a hot meal and a comfortable place to sleep.
But there are also important stories like the one Jina Moore and Glenna Gordon tell as part of a series sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting about land disputes in Liberia. And Kate Thomas’ memorable piece about Sarah Mayson, a soul singer living in Ghana’s Budumburam refugee camp. And everyday Liberians are writing real stories about their lives. Yet even these intriguing pieces aren’t going to stop those “reporters” who want a cheap thrill at the expense of others.
While I agree with David Sasaki, outreach director of Global Voices, who called Vice’s portrayal of Liberia “idiotic, sensationalizing, simplistic, and in many places factually incorrect. To say that this documentary is representative of Liberia is like saying that a documentary on Las Vegas is representative of the United States,” I do not believe that the Vice series in any way represents Liberia. (Full disclosure: Global Voices gave Ceasefire Liberia a seed grant last year). Vice’s videos represents a narrow-minded, myopic, ignorant, exploitative view of Liberia, which should be obvious to anyone watching the documentaries.
Yet isn’t that the danger of citizen media? That by giving everyone the opportunity to be heard, we may not agree with everything being said. Isn’t that the danger of a democracy? The truth is that citizen journalism, like a democracy, is for everyone and everyone does not always share the same values of journalism or tell the story we would like them to tell. That is the danger– and beauty– of Web 2.0.
No, I don’t believe that Shane Smith’s parachute-eye view of Liberia is accurate, if only because it is one person’s story. Any one story that is meant to represent an entire community, let alone an entire country, is inherently flawed.
Just ask Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Watching a video of Adichie speaking at TED woke me up to the dangers of what she calls “the single story.” When Adichie was a child growing up in Nigeria she only read American and British writers who wrote about the world they knew: snow, apples, and conversations about the weather, were par for the course. The danger was that as Adichie began to write at the age of seven her stories were filled not with what she saw around her – sun and mangoes- but with tales conjured from the stories she read in those British and American books. Seemingly innocuous details like snow and apples seeped into her tales, although they were not part of the world around her.
This is the danger of traditional journalism and why participatory journalism is so important. When the story of a culture or a community comes from one source – no matter whom or what that source is – all of society becomes impressionable.
So, yes, Shane Smith went looking for child soldiers and prostitutes and cannibalism in Liberia and that is exactly what he found. The Ceasefire Liberia bloggers, on the other hand, have never once mentioned cannibalism or heroin in their stories, instead talking about empowerment projects for women and girls, Liberia’s decision to aid Haiti’s quake victims, and feeding the hungry over the holidays.
So, who is worse off: Liberia’s bloggers, who are shining a light on their communities and the world around them, or Smith, who went half-way across the world and came back badly shaken, but with no more knowledge than he left with? Smith is part of the old guard — the white, male, gonzo journalist– who leaves the world no better than he found it. The Liberian bloggers I work with are changing the world one story at a time.
I know whose side I want to be on.