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Thursday, 15 March 2012

Kony2012: Lessons for every journalist


Have you seen the internet sensation film Kony2012? Seventy eight million people have already viewed it, it has taken up copious amounts of print space and governments are talking about changing their policies because of it. For that ever decreasing number of people who have not heard of the film or seen it let me briefly explain what the film is about:

The film is made by a campaign group called InvisibleChildren about the wanted war criminal Joseph Kony, his army the Lord’s Resistance Army and his use of child soldiers in Uganda. So why is the film so popular and what lessons can we learn from it as journalists?

What makes Kony2012’s success even more amazing is that it flies in the face of conventional thinking about how current affairs covers international stories in general and Africa specifically.

Traditionally foreign stories are seen as audience losers. Just to underline this point this week Panorama and Dispatches both covered international stories. Panorama covered recent events in Syria while Dispatches did an investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka. The Panorama film recorded its second lowest audience ever, since becoming a half hour format, of 1.5 million (the lowest audience was 1 million and that was when it got shifted to BBC2 due to an Andy Murray Wimbledon semi-final over-running). Dispatches meanwhile received an audience of 0.3million for its international coverage of Sri Lanka.

When it comes to Africa specifically the idea that low audiences come with the territory is even more ingrained amongst TV bigwigs. I was recently talking to a high level BBC exec who bemoaned the fact that stories on Africa are “niche” pointing to the fact that the BBC This World film onSudan received an audience of only 0.6 million (I should remind you that this was covering the birth of a new nation – possibly the biggest story to occur in sub-Saharan Africa in the last twenty years).

And so it is against this backdrop that Kony2012, a film about a civil conflict in central Africa, has become the biggest current affairs film since Martin Bashir interviewed Princess Diana on Panorama.

People have attributed various theories as to how it has done this. Some people have talked about how the film is so “slick”, others have attributed its success to Facebook and others said it is all about the immediacy of the film using the same tactics as a used car salesman’s “everymust go now” for the internet savvy age.

I don’t believe any of these properly explain its appeal. The film is no more “slicker” than a well produced Panorama, Dispatches or Frontline (on PBS). Facebook alone cannot account for its success, internet sensations like “Thumbs Up For Rock and Roll” only get 5 – 10 million views if you’re lucky, let alone explain how a half hour documentary has got close to 80 million views. And as for the used car salesman techniques, I’m not buying it, people are not that gullible.

The secret I believe is in the idea of “Journalism Of Consequence”. The current affairs films that really succeed are ones that are able to change the world around them. Change government policy, change the way big companies act, force a politician from power etc. When you are watching a strong current affairs film you are watching the world change in front of your very eyes. You are watching something important that will have real consequences in the real world. That is why current affairs programmes that cover domestic issues are invariably more popular. It is far easier for a current affairs programme to influence the actions of domestic government or company than to influence a government half way across the world which is not even accountable to the people who have watched the programme.

The challenge is how do you make programmes that cover foreign issues “journalism of consequence”? If you can crack that nut you will not only attract a large domestic audience you will also have the potential of your film going global appealing to a worldwide audience.

This is exactly what Kony2012 has been able to do. The entire film focuses on what can be done to change things. It also shows how previous efforts have forced change – with Obama supposedly changing US policy due to their campaigns. At almost every opportunity the film virtually screams; “This is journalism of consequence!”. Watch this film and not only are you watching the world change around you, you too can change the world for the better.

The fact is most current affairs programmes that cover foreign affairs are almost the exact opposite. The films offer a window into an unseen foreign world but there are no consequences to the films being made and broadcast.

Kony2012 provides valuable lessons for all journalists that are trying to cover stories not normally covered in the mainstream. It goes to the heart of what this blog is about which is trying to increase the diversity of what TV covers.

First of all it tells us that there are almost no subjects that cannot attract an audience if it is covered correctly. A small civil war in central Africa hardly sounds like a ratings winner. So the next time a commissioner or TV executive tells you the a certain subject never attracts audience remind them it is all about treatment. Remind them of Kony2012

Secondly I sometimes think that the way we write about diversity in TV, (or other non-mainstream issues), is almost like the conventional approach TV takes to foreign affairs; highlighting an important and interesting issue but ultimately with no consequences. BME, women and disabled people are still under-represented in front of and behind the camera regardless of how many articles I write or read. I get “diversity fatigue” and stop reading and this is true for numerous issues.

If we want our journalism to be taken seriously and reach as wide an audience as possible, whether that is about foreign affairs or diversity, we need to learn from Kony2012. We need to produce “Journalism Of Consequence”

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