When does reciprocity not matter? When you’re a journalist and not an anthropologist

Continuing from my last two posts, I have been thinking about instances where reciprocity, collaboration, control over representation, advocacy, and even informed consent simply did not matter at all to the indigenous community in question and to its friends in the wider community. I thought of the occasions where I had to share space with members of the mass media in Trinidad — filming space, photography space, interview space — in my years spent with the Carib Community, a formal organization that formally calls itself the Santa Rosa Carib Community. The last occasion that I did any kind of filming was in 2006, at a packed public event held under the auspices of the Caribbean Festival of the Arts.

As I began to set up my equipment, an indigenous visitor from Suriname almost accosted me: “What are you doing here? Did you get permission to film this? This is an important occasion you know. I am telling the chief.” I had been there for several years, and never saw this woman before. She was one of the chief’s newest friends from the wider Caribbean region. Then members of the media arrived — video, photo, audio equipment, jostling and cramming the space in front of the stage where members of the Carib Community would perform, give speeches, and hear speeches by government ministers. Nobody asked them anything. I was asked several times by members of the audience if I could provide them with a copy of my videotapes, as if there were no expense in terms of time or money, as if I was this wandering photo studio working free of charge for anyone who asks.

As I mentioned, I noticed that nobody said a word to any member of the media — no pointed questions about “what are you doing with all those photos, are you going to give us any?” or “can I get a copy of your videotape?” or “what are you going to write, are you going to show it to us first so we can edit it,” not even “what is your name and how can I reach you?” Nothing. The journalists came, filmed, recorded, asked questions of whoever it pleased them to ask, then packed up and left. Most of what they gathered was never released. But as usual, what articles did come out contained factual errors, negative characterizations of the comments or demeanor of the chief, unflattering photos, or television pieces that were so brief as to say little beyond the fact that the event happened.

Not only did I rarely hear complaints from members of the community, they seemed to actively seek the attention of the media on a number of occasions, only with the same process and the same results. On occasion they have even been lambasted and ridiculed, and private community divisions were laid bare for public scrutiny by individual journalists. And still the journalists are called back — in fact, it’s a minor triumph if they show up. Also journalists get to be brusque, rude, tough, and ask blunt, even personally insensitive questions — “they’re just doing their job.”

In my case, formal agreements were signed, consent formally obtained, hundreds of photographs shared, donations made, materials produced for their reports and press releases, promotional materials designed and delivered, websites designed and hosted, transfers of money, and widened recognition and exposure from which they have benefited — and not only do I not resent this, I actively support it and encourage it. Nor did the chief stand by the Surinamese guest I introduced above, and instead he sought to correct her incorrect impressions about me. In fact, he had to do that more than once on what was effectively the very last time I would be spending any time doing research in that community, given that he was host to several indigenous guests from across the Caribbean, and North America, many of whom seemed to possess negative stereotypes of anthropologists…and none of whom raised any questions about the presence of the media, engaged in the exact same activities as myself.

So why the different in attitude and expectations? I do not have any conclusive answers, just my speculations, added to the speculations of my friends in the Carib Community who play no role in organizing events and inviting the media or other guests. The “answers” we came up with range widely:

  • I am white and foreign, the media is local and national. Foreigners take away, the local media remain here.
  • The media produces reports and images almost immediately — no years and years to wait for an expensive book to come out, that far fewer people will ever see locally.
  • Being on television during the evening news, being heard on the radio, appearing above the fold on the front page of the newspaper, these are all socially prestigious markers of status gained, and again lots of people are there to witness this public exposure. Being “part of a study” is not quite as shiny, as heroic, it doesn’t look like a spotlight.
  • You can’t ask anything of the media, not even to get the facts straight, because nobody can control them and you are lucky to ever get their attention. They answer to no one, and that’s just a reality that we adjust to. Anthropologists are not journalists and work for no media corporation, and so matters are different. Indeed, I recall one individual at a public event in the Carib Centre who first asked me if I worked for CNN, looked disappointed when I said no, asked what other news organization I worked for, looked confused when I said “None, I am anthropologist,” and only then proceeded to ask, “So I could get a copy of your video tape?”
  • Journalists come and go, almost unnoticed given how brief their stay can be at any given event. The anthropologist is there for months, even years in my case.
  • As selfish and elitist as academics might be seen, the assumption is always at work that we are there to share with the public, even if the assumption is never admitted — I cannot recall the number of times complete strangers have emailed me with requests that I send them all of my research notes, everything, just like that, no explanation. I would love to see them even conceive of sending such a message to a journalist.
  • And, as disconcerting as this will be to readers, but is nonetheless a very common statement that I heard or that was told to me: foreign people are more accommodating, more willing to help and donate, whereas local people (referred to as either “local people” or more commonly referred to by using some nasty racial epithet) were seen as selfish, greedy, tricksters, “they come out to get” types, and so one cannot even bother to expect a journalist to ever provide copies of the photos taken, or even to call before publishing a story and saying “here is what I am running, do you have any response you want me to include?”

This post and the observations contained within are just based on my narrow experiences. I am sure that others will have had similar, or very different experiences, and thus different conclusions to draw. I would love to hear more.

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