Pity or Justice: what storytelling approach to use?

People are suffering: do you show their suffering or do you say everything is fine? War correspondent Abeer Saady replies to this dilemma that has been diving western and African media professionals for years.

By Gaïus Kowene 

Why this question matters to me

When I started developing a passion for journalism and media world, I had two motivations: the first one was to prove to myself that I’m not wrong when I believe that one can be a successful journalist while respecting ethics. The second motivation and probably the most important one: owning our narrative, being able to get the voices of people from my region into international broadcasting channels.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the question of pity or justice approach.

Look! When I grew up as a kid, I used to hear my parents and relatives saying “journalists are liars.

Representation

But I just couldn’t understand how this was possible. But during my training at  Yole!Africa, a center for art and cultural exchanged empowering DR Congo youth, I solved this dilemma. When my relatives used to say that journalists are liars, what they meant was “we don’t identify with the image of us they project.”

Thus, the question of narrative and representation that is still influenced today by the colonial regard. I don’t mean to blame NGOs that are well-intentioned, but if you look at most of their ads or fundraising campaigns, they focus on the politics of pity.

The politics of pity aims at touching the heart of your audience to get them to do something about what you tell them. And most of these images have been photos of children dying with hunger or videos or miserable rape survivors, street kids, armed militias, etc.

The question

The question is: where has this way of doing taken the world? Every person probably has a different answer but I believe it got us turning around the pot. I hear someone asking:

“What do you want us to do? We can’t just sit there and watch people suffering! Do you want us to say everything is good when it’s clear that people are barely surviving this hell?”

I asked these question to Abeer Saady, a world renowned war correspondent with 27 years professional experience covering conflict zones in Middle East and Africa.

Her answer?

Shift from the politic of pity to the politic of justice. What she means is going beyond the sensational, understanding what are circumstances and decisions that led to this suffering; who are the local or international actors feeding these conflicts? How do you prove that with evidence instead of just appealing to the emotional brain without fixing the problem in a sustainable way.

Watch Abeer talking about the Politics of Pity and the Politics of Justice in storytelling. Then, let me know what you think in comments.

One thought on “Pity or Justice: what storytelling approach to use?

  1. Great post, Gaius!

    I agree with Abeer Saady that the politics of pity approach to journalism can’t provoke real sustainable change, but for different reasons that what she expressed in the video above.

    To me, the most important aspect to consider about this approach is what you mentioned Gaius, it’s the unethical nature in which people are (mis)represented as voiceless and powerless victims. I believe that sustainable positive change needs to come from the local communities themselves, and if these communities are (mis)represented and (thus then perceived as) powerless victims, then the solutions proposed will never incorporate them as powerful agents of change.

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