I recently participated in an Urban@LSE sponsored event titled Visible Cities: International Media Portrayals of Cities in the Global South.
This event – a full video recording of which is available above – brought together urban geographers, media theorists and practical journalists to discuss how media tend to portray cities in the Global South. I am however not really an expert in how media portray such cities, and indeed more generally I do not really prioritize the analysis of media representation in my own work. So I thought my main contribution, possibly to the annoyance of the organizers (though I should say they were very gracious), might be to question the questions we as panellists were being asked to address.
As you might see from my own remarks (I come in at around 1:36) my own contribution was essentially to make two points about one of the key questions panellists were provided in advance (“What alternative understandings of cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America are possible in Western/international media?”). The first question of the question for me was, when we say ‘in media’ to what are we referring? The ample material made available in advance, and the discussion at the event itself – both of which included frequent invocation of ‘portrayal’, ‘narrative’, ‘image’, ‘frame’, ‘stereotype’ and ‘coverage’ – suggested that this meant in media representations, or media content. My claim was that, if we are truly interested in understanding the relation of media and cities, we should not prioritize the analysis of media representations. Speaking specifically about journalism, I suggested we need to pry open the black box that is the journalism-city relation. This would mean fixating less on what is said or is possible to say about cities in representational terms, and worrying much more about the conditions of possibility that govern the conduct and milieus of different practical fields involved in making urban representations, journalism a very important one of these of course.
Here of course I was taking my opportunity to suggest we think about journalism as a form of urban practice in and in relation to cities. First of all ‘in’ cities, because journalism practices are notably positioned in urban settings, including of course international media which often work to conceal their situated bases, at least when it is not symbolically valued. With a Bourdieusian hat on, we might think about the variegated urban habitus of journalists. But journalism might second of all be seen as an urban practice ‘in relation to’ cities. Keeping that Bourdieu hat on, cities are often but not always symbolically valuable for journalists competing to assert their view of the social world. This sounds like I am referring to urban representations, and in a sense I am, though my emphasis would be on the practical and technological contexts, conditions or relations of making such representations, rather than a critique of the representations themselves.
My second questioning of that first key question felt more like a cheap shot, but I did feel it needed to be asked: why concern ourselves with specifically Western or international media? I’m not silly of course: I do recognize that Western or international media speak to and speak for powerful interests; centres and sites of global power that are projected politically, economically, militarily and communicatively. But it seemed to me that it was also important to reflect critically on why a focus on outlets such as the New York Times seems so natural and relevant. In particular, why so relevant for ‘us’ Western-based or internationally mobile academics, journalists, professionals at the LSE, concerned it seemed to ‘get our representations right’.
The context for this worry comes more so from urban than media theory, and in particular the spirit of Jenny Robinson’s book Ordinary Cities. For Robinson, all cities, across the world, should be considered ordinary in the sense that we should not begin by labelling cities as for example Western, global, developing or Third World. For Robinson, this pre-labelling largely operates to prioritize an urbanism seen through the eyes of Western urban theory, seriously hindering our imagination of possible urban futures. As someone at the interface of urban and media theory, I see a bit of a parallel. Expectations of media often come from a Western point of view, as was shown, for example, by the excitement on the part of news media concerning the role of social media’s in the recent uprising in the Arab world. And media anthropologists have long been making a similar argument to Robinson: that we should not begin by dividing media into categories, in particular if this operates to prioritize a Western lens on media and mediation. Certainly, attention might be directed as well to localised expressions of journalistic practice in and through cities in the Global South, for it is through these mediated contexts (though not exclusively) that we might be able to attend to the real variety in possible mediatations of urban public life.
In addition to the video above, there is a much better quality audio recording (the video’s sound quality is not great) available to download from the LSE.