Much of the reporting on Somalia focuses on critical issues like the civil war, piracy, links between Somali rebels and transnational terrorist groups, Somalia’s relations with its neighbors, and all the humanitarian costs of war and instability. That kind of journalism is essential for anyone trying to figure out what is happening in that country.
But another strand within the reporting on Somalia focuses on trivial and sensational incidents that have little to do with fundamental struggles over power and survival there. What are we to make of stories about an old man marrying a teenager, a Qur’an quiz with weapons for prizes, or the dozens of stories about al Shabab banning bells in one local school? Do they make a serious contribution to our understanding of events on the ground?
My view is that they do not. The article linked above concerning bells, for example, says that al Shabab ordered the school to discontinue using bells because they connoted Christianity. That takes about a paragraph’s worth of material. The rest of the article just summarizes al Shabab’s hardline reputation. Another article on the same topic suggests that this move will alienate ordinary Somalis, but still does not explain why one school and its bells are important. ABC makes a case for this importance – by saying that the bells incident is part of al Shabab‘s broader “war on fun,” and that “the group could overplay it’s [sic] hand.”
The thesis that al Shabab is reaching a “tipping point” where they will begin to lose support may well prove true. Or it may not – I’ve heard predictions to that effect for some time now, and it hasn’t happened yet. But just because the bells story might add a tiny piece of evidence to the debate doesn’t give it enough relevance to merit the coverage it has garnered.
Moreover, I think the sensational stories have three harmful effects:
- Sensationalism simplifies Somalis’ motives, preventing a larger understanding of what drives the conflict: Sensational coverage leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Instead of analyzing why symbols associated with Christianity might be important, asking who supports the decision, and investigating the competition between different groups trying to claim the mantle of Islamic legitimacy, reporters offer superficial cultural explanations about Muslims who hate fun. Presenting Somalia as exotic and inscrutable makes it difficult for readers to imagine what all the different actors are thinking.
- Sensationalism distracts from other stories, especially anything positive: The outlets linked above all provide invaluable material about real issues in Somalia. But it seems that when these news organizations want to turn from the grim fare of war reporting to something “lighter,” it’s rarely a success story about Somali inventiveness, optimism, solidarity, or triumph. It’s usually either something ridiculous or something trivial (though often still sinister). That makes Somalia seem either unspeakably horrible or comically absurd. Whatever the case, it dehumanizes the people there.
- Sensationalism constrains discussions about dealing with problems: When we in the US see a steady stream of articles depicting Somalia as backward and its Islamic militants as people with whom it is impossible to communicate, we receive an implicit message that few solutions, if any, would work in Somalia. If we don’t get serious analysis of why al Shabab behaves the way it does, how can we know what might induce them to change, to talk to the government, to go away? If we don’t get nuanced analysis of different cultural trends in Somalia, how can we know what people are doing to cope with the effects of war and chaos? Sensational treatment of isolated incidents deprives readers of the information and ideas they need to develop substantive opinions about how the crisis in Somalia might end.
Now, I want to make clear that the raw material for these stories could have huge importance. Maybe this bells incident is a really big deal. I thought al Shabab’s recent bans on radio stations playing music were fairly trivial, until I read this analysis of how the music bans fit into a “war over information” that includes assassinations of journalists and attacks on foreign news outlets. The point is, an incident like the bells or the music bans can provide fodder for a reporter to write about Islamic “wars on fun,” or a journalist can take an incident like that and explain in a sophisticated manner how it fits into broader patterns that concern serious issues. It’s not what’s covered necessarily, but how it’s covered.
The sensationalism that happens in reporting on Somalia also happens with other countries. A man marries a goat in Sudan. A man marries 86 wives in Nigeria. Sensationalism obscures serious issues in these cases too. But in Somalia, with all its problems, the sensationalism seems particularly unfair.