The Aquinian

The problem with ‘awareness’

Alyssa Mosher - From the Editor (Tom Bateman/AQ)

I wanted to ignore Kony2012 when I first heard about it.

The slogan was all over my Facebook newsfeed; apparently #stopkony was trending on Twitter. Perhaps my inner hipster told me I didn’t want to be another person talking about the same thing as everyone else.

But the journalist in me couldn’t hold back.

I read up on the Kony2012 campaign and was immediately intrigued. Almost 730 STU students are part of a Facebook group, discussing the good – and bad – about the campaign, Invisible Children, and the African warlord, Joseph Kony.

Someone added me to the group automatically, but for the longest time all I could do was watch everyone else’s reactions. Many people seemed excited to be part of such a large movement, while others criticized their naivety. I posted newspaper articles and editorials on Facebook and Twitter, hoping to provide different perspectives.

Who did this Jason Russell guy think he was, anyway?

***

Journalists can be bombarded with story ideas from citizens, government and organizations – especially if someone is looking to “spread awareness.” And often, we’re seen as jaded sceptics because we don’t jump on every idea thrown our way.

As journalists, we often feel as if we’ve seen “Kony 2012” or “Occupy Wall Street” before. On the surface, they’re “just another African poverty campaign” or student debt protest; they’re just publicity stunts.

We ask, “What’s new?” We don’t want to fuel the fire and give these people more of our time, when “real news” is happening all over the world. We’re not publicists.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with advocacy journalism – we can choose to champion a cause – but for us to make a story out of an “awareness campaign,” something new or different has to catch our attention or often we just won’t go there.

So when something like Kony2012 starts to not only trend on Twitter and Facebook, but in everyday conversation amongst the young and old, we have to stop and wonder: what’s the story here?

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Journalists are storytellers. That’s what we do; we tell the stories that need to be told – and often aren’t told – to inform our audience. Or we find fault in the narratives told by government or special interest groups. And ironically enough, many of us want to change the world in the process.

But being reflexively critical has its dangers. Cynicism becomes a problem when it hinders journalist’s ability to tell the story – especially when that story is right in front of your face, dominating conversations and social media newsfeeds. It’s too easy to say “there’s nothing new here.” As George Orwell said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.”

The Aquinian decided to tell that story that dominated social media conversation. University-aged people were the target of this campaign, one of the fastest spreading movements to date. Is awareness enough? What will pasted posters do for the children of Africa? What are the problems with Kony2012? Can the internet capture a brutal warlord?

John Stuart Mill once said no opinion – right or wrong – should be muffled, because eventually, the truth will float to the top. And it’s stories of journalists that help sift through those truths (even if it means having one leg on the awareness campaign bandwagon).

***

I finally watched the Kony2012 video after about a week of wading through those articles and editorials I posted on Facebook.

No one can deny the video was well produced (and apparently its budget explains why). It may give a wrong impression of what is going on with Joseph Kony in Uganda in 2012; maybe it was a bit smug and manipulative in places.

But maybe, just maybe, the ultimate message of the video was a good one. I think Jason Russell, the director and creator of Kony2012, truly believes that awareness and U.S. intervention can be game changers. We can call him naïve; it is what it is.

Perhaps, out of the media shitstorm that accompanies any big internet campaign can come some truth and some hope. What’s wrong with a little bit of optimism, anyway? Trained sceptic or not.

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