How 2 NYT journalists show the biases, inaccuracies and unchallenged popular narratives in mainstream media

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November 12, 2012 by kzhen

From the Half the Sky website:

Hidden in the overlapping problems of sex trafficking and forced prostitution, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality is the single most vital opportunity of our time — and women are seizing it. From Somaliland to Cambodia to Afghanistan, women’s oppression is being confronted head on and real, meaningful solutions are being fashioned. Change is happening, and it’s happening now.

Journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn took on this urgent moral challenge in 2009 with their acclaimed best-selling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (already in its 25th printing in hardback). They encouraged readers all over the world to do the same.

When I first heard about the Half the Sky film, I was really excited to see it. I was excited to learn about how women around the world are organizing and showing resistance and agency against the oppressive patriarchy we live in, as well as to learn about different current issues that does not get enough attention. But what was shown in the film was almost the complete opposite of what I expected.
In Half the Sky, Nicolas Kristof is the main character of the film. It’s not so much about the agency and resistance of these young women who are living in poverty and face sexual violence, lack of opportunity for education, etc., it’s the story of Kristof discovering these girls and using celebrities and his film crew to “save” them.
Kristof is paternalistic, insensitive and his presentation in the film is absolutely disgusting and almost makes his work invalid. In the film, Kristof gets up close and personal with girls and asks them to retell their traumatic experiences (“tell me about your rape?”) or he asks them leading and insensitive questions (“Does your father beat you if you don’t sell enough tickets?” “Is she a good enough student to go to university?”). Meanwhile he has a pen and a pad ready to write down what the girls say as the camera zooms into the girls’ faces until they feel they need to put their head down in shame.

The film focused on the interpersonal forces that aided in the girls oppressions as well as had a very narrow framework of the institutions like the police or local government. However, it did not look at the larger structural forces that put these women and their communities in poverty in the first place. Such larger forces that Kristof and WuDunn, (his wife who also visited these countries as foreign corespondents and wrote about these issues but was not in the film), could have talked about were war, U.S. military intervention, globalization, imperialism, etc. Because all these countries are impoverished, there definitely could have been connections made about these larger structures.

Kristof’s use of celebrities and the way they look down on these girls triggers emotions of pity for them (Kristof and his celebrity guest must have said “I’m soo proud of you” at least 5 times to each of the girls). And although this “pity” is really what captures audience members who are not critical of the film’s approach and can then immediately pull out their checkbook to “save” these “broken, shattered girls” (Kristof’s words), it removes the agency and efforts of resistance from these young women. It completely dehumanizes them as people when they are only looked at as victims who need to be saved or another charity case that makes viewers feel good about themselves. His approach has completely commodified the pain of these young women.

Furthermore, the way that these stories are presented, it’s as if these issues of gendered violence, education inequalities, sex-trafficking, etc. aren’t happening right now in the United States. We don’t need to look down on third world women and try to help them fight oppression, when these same things are happening in the United States. We are not the perfect, model country that has the responsibility to fix the problems (most of the time that we had a part in causing) of other countries unless it’s in a way that is working with the people in them and leading in ways other than economically.

Although WuDunn was also a co-author, researcher, and foreign correspondent who did research in these countries and on these issues, she is only in the film as a figure head who does the introductions.

When she came to Ithaca College on Thursday Nov. 1, to be part of the provost’s Difficult Dialogues discussion series, a few friends and I thought it was important to ask her these questions that we were left with after watching the film.
My question was: Your husband is the one who gets most of the criticisms because he is the person in the film who asks insensitive and leading questions. However, you were also part of the movement and have been in these countries doing research. How do you and your husband react to these criticisms and do you take any issue with the film?
Her response was pretty much along the lines of: I’m sorry that you feel so hostile about this. If you think you have a better way of doing this, then you do it.

I was shocked at her response because I thought that at the least she would be able to recognize critisms even if she didn’t agree with them. For me, their work truly shows how mainstream media can present to their audience a certain idea/issue without looking at what are the real causes behind a popular narrative or problem. It is just reporting what is seen from the point of view of the journalist’s biases.

Speaking of, the Ithacan did an equally biased job of covering what happened during the event.

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