When global challenges are covered in the media, how much attention is paid to the most affected citizens? And how often are they painted as protagonists in stories of resistance, rather than helpless victims? People don’t change their beliefs based on facts and numbers, but inspiring stories of people who choose hope over despair could have this effect. Therefore, when giving disaster a human face, the media may do better than showing only the victims. Relatable heroes, if their stories are shared, could inspire collective action around the world.
In December 2016, almost all major news outlets reported the death of Anas El-Basha, “the last clown of Aleppo”. Anas El-Basha was centre director at Space of Hope, a civil society group working with children in ISIS-held Syria. He was killed in an airstrike over the eastern part of the city.
As a news editor based in Egypt, I have followed the events of the Syrian civil war since its beginning. Yet the colourful face of the 24-year-old activist El-Basha is the image I remember most to this day, more than the spiralling figures of raids, casualties, and bombed cities, or the international players involved in one of the deadliest wars of this century.
However, as a journalist, I have wondered what made El-Basha’s death newsworthy, while his life was just another detail in the devastating picture that finds its way to our screens every day. Could the story of a “clown” who devoted his life to cheering up traumatized children in a city besieged by death and violence not make more of a difference if it were told as a message of resistance and inspiration, rather than another example of just how bloody the seven-year-old war in Syria has become?
The media covers contemporary global governance challenges and arrangements, and thus seeks to uncover the dynamics of power therein. However, as it does so, little attention is paid to the most affected citizens and what they are doing to address those challenges. Instead, the media often portrays them as victims of the actions and omissions of policy makers, not as survivors or, more importantly, protagonists in stories of success and resistance.
In recent years, more and more researchers have argued that people don’t change their beliefs based on facts and numbers. The fear of forces beyond our control makes denial the only defence mechanism we have. How can the media, then, help readers feel empowered, and thus more engaged? The main way that it can, I believe, is by sharing inspiring stories of people who choose hope over despair and resistance over apathy.
What we need from the media at such a crucial time is more stories telling us that we, as citizens, do matter and can have a huge impact.
For years, the media has attempted to give disasters a human face, but the only faces it shows are those of the victims – images of a dead Syrian child washed up on the shores of Europe, or a mother sitting with her children in the ruins of a city levelled by a devastating earthquake in Haiti. These efforts have succeeded in raising readers’ sympathy, but media consumers are rarely given ways to help or act, other than perhaps through financial donations or by signing a petition. Donations may help release pain for a time in the most affected areas but, in themselves, they will not put an end to global crises, nor even make progress towards including citizens as active players in addressing them.
In the face of global warming, international terrorism, or military conflicts, media audiences feel no different than those watching a disaster movie: waiting for the world to be saved by a superhero with powers far exceeding their own. Could we, instead, present the stories of relatable heroes, individuals and collectives who, faced with adversity, find the strength and means to resist or even overcome their challenges?
Ayan Muumin, a Somali mother of eight living in Vollsmose, Denmark, gathered a group of mothers to set up an initiative called Sahan. The volunteering mothers, with growing persistence and enthusiasm, go door-knocking around the poor, crime-ridden suburb where immigrants reside, talking to neighbours and inviting them to share their food and stories. Many of the mothers volunteering were once vicitims of discrimination and alienation, while some had to deal with the threats of possible radicalization of their children, but instead of feeling vulnerable or helpless, these women chose to make a difference no matter how small it is.
Over 150 women volunteer for this organization today, running a community hotline to advise other mothers on how to deal with their children against radicalization. While dozens from Denmark have joined ISIS in the last few years, there are no reported cases from Vollsmose. I wonder how this under-reported success story could inspire mothers in countries like France and Holland or even Tunisia, Egypt, and Afghanistan – and beyond, what other initiatives it might inspire to overcome the barriers of national and cultural difference.
In 2011, while the whole world was watching the political and economic developments in post-revolution Egypt, some young environmentalists who themselves were present in Tahrir square on January 25 were starting a new initiative. Nawaya is an NGO that tries to help Egyptian farmers to switch from small scale conventional farming communities to sustainable ones. Since the 1950s when chemical pesticides were first used in Egypt, more than a million metric tons of pesticides have been released into the environment. But for the young men and women who launched Nawaya, the change they seek could only be accomplished by looking beyond organic or fair-trade production. With volunteer experts in the fields of sustainable agriculture, eco-housing, development, education and social-integration, Nawaya trains underprivileged farmers and introduces them to a new mode of collective thinking and action.
In the micro societies that Nawaya attempts to build, everyone is involved in decision making and planning for the future. The same farmers who start as trainees become trainers themselves, passing the message and the experience forward. This initiative, which survived the political turmoil during the past years, is one of the few that have a comprehensive, collective vision about changing the rural community in Egypt from the bottom up. However, not many people know about Nawaya and the daily challenges faced by its volunteers.
Due to conceptual and practical factors, the media struggles to report on daily issues outside glass rooms and conference halls. Budgets are shrinking, and there is greater pressure than ever to produce more articles in less time to maximize audience and profit. With these factors in mind, putting a human face on global challenges is so difficult that these efforts should be applauded, even though they are not enough to inspire the kind of plural engagement in which global citizens grasp the importance of being part of a wider active network that has a vision towards the future of this fractured world; a network that can both learn from and inspire others around the globe.
At the same time that global challenges become increasingly pressing, fake news and alternative facts are creating more alienation, apathy, and pessimism. What we need from the media at such a crucial time is more stories telling us that we, as citizens, do matter and can have a huge impact. From migrant mothers fighting radicalization in Denmark to young people trying to build alternative sustainable societies in Egypt, only stories of real people resisting can inspire us to get out and make the change the world needs.
Dina Samak is a journalist, editor and writer. She is currently the Deputy Chief Editor of Ahram Online, the English-language news web site published by Al-Ahram Establishment, Egypt’s largest news organisation. For more than 20 years Dina Samak has been covering and writing about major developments in Egypt’s politics and economy. Her work has been featured in a number of leading newspapers and TV and radio broadcasters, including BBC Arabic and Al Jazeera TV. She has also been a juror for a number of journalism awards, including the Journalistic Distinction Award given by the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate.