Making holes in the filter bubble

Image: Newspapers

Think like the media

Reading the papers over the last few months, I’ve picked up different pieces of information about “Africa”. Of course, I saw that Angela Merkel called for a new refugee policy during her visit to Mali, Niger and Ethiopia, acknowledging that it was in Germany’s interest to promote Africa’s welfare. Less prominently featured was news of a controversy among agricultural economists over whether the Guinea Savannah could be turned into a bread basket for Zambia through agriculture.

 

Another less conspicuous story concerned 6,000 people in Kenya who were set to receive a basic income with no strings attached as an alternative to the method of funding individual development aid initiatives. And then there was the “Was bewegt Afrika” series of articles in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper a little longer ago discussing issues of concern to Africa.

African news receives little attention

I didn’t have to go looking for any of this information; I simply stumbled upon it while leafing through the papers. An interesting image or headline catches your eye, so you take a closer look. I wouldn’t have found any of this information on the timeline of my social media applications, as “Africa” is not an arresting topic. Thanks to the age-old stylistic devices of journalism (striking headlines, interesting images, etc.), these articles got my attention without me searching for them. These techniques still work best in the good old printed newspaper.

Africa is losing coverage as a topic with the decline in print media

We can speculate that the fragmented and hyper-individualised way in which we use social media will leave us less and less likely to come into contact with inconspicuous media content. Especially content which does not lie at the centre of our personal spectrum of interest. We will become highly selective in what we read and watch. There are some things which are very difficult to avoid when reading a printed newspaper. But on social media, the things I don’t want to know barely make it into my filter bubble. For the most part, we only see and hear about our preferred content. And in any case, social media users generally don’t wish to consume any socio-political content at all, but rather entertaining news, if possible also from their immediate social surroundings. Wherever news media websites are driven by users, the typical content of the news producers takes precedence, while coverage of niche topics, including reports from countries on the African continent, is more limited.

As we know from many studies conducted by news researchers, our southern neighbouring continent still has a hard time making it onto the agenda of our prosperous Western societies via high-reach mass media. When news from Africa does manage to grab our attention, then it tends to contain generalisations about the entire continent, making it harder for us to differentiate between individual countries and regions.

Africa – one single deficit

The German media continue to reduce the number of their Africa correspondents, reporting primarily from crisis regions. The low degree of differentiation gives rise to clichéd depictions of the “poorest of the poor”. Africa is seen not so much as the continent of opportunities, but rather the continent of problems. Development policy actors also face difficulties. There is a risk of an opinion becoming established among the public that, because many refugees are seeking to come to Europe, development cooperation does not work. The media give greater regard to the need to step up efforts to combat the causes of displacement through development cooperation than does the public. An already simple media agenda on Africa is dominated by the topics of refugee movements, displacement, epidemics, war, radicalisation, famines, natural disasters, human rights issues and corruption. Reporting on successful political developments, active civil societies, social movements and examples of successful development cooperation is the exception in the high-reach mass media.

Target groups need to be addressed more specifically

These few observations are not intended to be a culturally pessimistic reflex action of blaming “the media”. Rather, current trends in media consumption appear to show an urgent need to address the different target groups individually when it comes to the broad topic of “Africa”. Reaching media users who are always online and who increasingly choose to inform themselves about specific topics only is particularly challenging. This isn’t because they are fundamentally disinterested, but rather because setting the bar for access to the public sphere as low as possible for everyone significantly reduces the chances of certain stories gaining public attention.

Consequently, actors wishing to acquire an audience for these topics will need to further professionalise their media work. They must make holes in the filter bubble and use their own communication channels to reach their target groups. What is the point in using conventional press activities to get young people excited about the relevance of cooperation with African countries and organisations when classic media, and print media especially, are being relegated progressively downstream in the media diet of 14 to 45-year-olds?

Bypassing gatekeepers

Governments, ministries, NGOs, associations and initiatives will no longer be able to rely on the media to communicate their messages, but rather will need to learn to think and work more like the media themselves. This trend can be seen in the more intensive use of owned media and is always effective where senders are able to appeal to their recipients with content relevant and interesting to those recipients and motivate them to engage interactively with it. I hope that this blog is further evidence of this.

Image: Lars Harden

Lars Harden is co-founder and managing director at aserto, based in Hanover, Germany. His main focuses are strategic consultancy in communication and projects concerning research in the field of image, reputation and market positioning.

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