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Lessening Africa's 'otherness' in the Western media: Towards a culturally responsive journalism

Thomas, Helene (2014) Lessening Africa's 'otherness' in the Western media: Towards a culturally responsive journalism. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Western reportage of the Global South and the related issue of media harm have long been explored and debated. How do we tell stories about people with cultures and backgrounds different from our own? Situated in the realm of ethics, the vexed relationship between Western journalism and non-Western contexts has often been addressed at a theoretical level. This study approaches this sensitive and complex topic from the perspective of journalism practice. Working from a base in Kigali, Rwanda the researcher’s experience as a journalist 'in the field' is drawn upon to reflect upon and analyse the challenges of telling stories about Rwanda.

First, the study exposes dominant news discourses that lead to constructions of ‘otherness’ in reporting the realities of Africa, and other non-Western societies. The study then goes on to explore a way forward for an ethical cross-cultural reportage that represents African subjects in a dignified and responsible manner.

The study blends theoretical explorations with insights gained from a participatory media project in Rwanda, as well as the researcher's own reflexive journalistic practice and presents its findings through a critical reflective analysis and a creative artefact (a radio documentary broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National, on 30th March 2014).

Responding to a call by global media ethicists Shakuntala Rao and Herman Wasserman for non-Western Indigenous theories to find a theoretical space among Western media practitioners (2007, 47), two interdependent action research studies were designed to locate and understand African local social practices, and to determine the effect of applying these to journalism practice. The study found that the media process benefited from respecting non-Western lifeways and values, reducing the potential for harm to the story subjects, and 'Othering' (Spivak 1985).

Upon further examination, the study also found resonance between the culture-specific ethical values identified within the study - reciprocity, respectfulness, responsibility, patience, and hospitality – and the protonorm of human sacredness that Christians and Nordenstreng believe 'binds humans into a common oneness' (2004, 21).

While on the one hand this study shows that there are diverging values between Western journalism practice and the cultural peculiarities in Rwanda, the connections made between the universal and the local have significant implications for the much wider debate that has been gaining momentum amongst media ethics scholars and journalism practitioners about whether it is 'possible to agree on ethical conduct for journalists around the globe’ (Wasserman 2008).

This thesis makes a valuable contribution to the current scholarly discussion around the representation of the Other in the global media by providing an example of a more culturally responsive practice for journalists, and in doing so also advances the debate in global journalism ethics.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Arts
Supervisor: Phillips, Gail and Mhando, Martin
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