Nine Years after “Kony 2012,” Media Bias Still Controls Charitable Giving
The documentary generated huge American interest, but never solved the problem.
Media coverage of a humanitarian crisis dominates the giving of the people towards the crisis. The media holds power to encourage or discourage giving towards a humanitarian crisis by the information they disseminate. In controlling people’s perceptions, the media controls the philanthropic response of the people towards a crisis. I have experienced this firsthand in the media coverage of the twenty-two-year conflict of the Joseph Kony LRA crisis.
In March 2012, the world’s attention was drawn to the evil of Joseph Kony in northern Uganda. Joseph Kony abducted 25,000 children, leading to the death of over 100,000 people and displacing 1.6 million people, between 1986 and 2006. In response to the overall conflict, a Californian nonprofit called Invisible Children produced a 30 minute documentary, “Kony 2012”.
Filmmakers tried to make Joseph Kony the most infamous person in the whole world, and many might say they succeeded. “Kony 2012” caught the attention of celebrities such as, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Rihanna. Through the media publicity the organization collected $5 million dollars in 2 days and in total $32 million was raised at the end of the campaign. In six days, the video had over 100 million views and the humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda for the first time had arrived on the global stage
Unfortunately, Kony was long gone. He had left northern Uganda six years prior, and was now in Central Africa Republic. Media influences us emotionally shaping our giving. People believe the media and do not question it. People were moved to give towards this particular cause even though it was ambitious in its approach- to get Joseph Kony arrested.
Nine years after the video was released, Joseph Kony is still Alive, LRA still exists, northern Uganda continues to suffer from the effects of the prolonged war. People gave towards this humanitarian crisis, but the problem was never solved. The media played a critical role in shaping the giving towards this cause despite, what impact did the giving make? The message published in this documentary by the media depicted Uganda as helpless nation and in need of an white American salvation. Despite the opposing voices from Uganda, the media was deaf to these concerns from Africa. The advocacy was American led, focusing on Ugandan stories with American solutions.
The media has played a central role in shaping the way people gave towards the LRA conflict in northern Uganda. The media steered and shaped the response of the American public to this humanitarian Crisis.
It is important to realize: the media plays a critical role in drawing attention towards a crisis. By drawing attention towards a particular crisis, media is a key humanitarian respondent. This way media can save a life or destroy a life. This is because less visibility means less giving and hence prolonging and complicating the humanitarian crisis.
There is a relationship between the media, the public and philanthropy. The narrative in the media can promote or hinder philanthropy. The public depend on the media for information and the media depends on the public for sales and publicity. Public opinion influences media coverage and media coverage influences public opinion. At the end they both influence philanthropy. To attract and maintain an audience, the media tells people what they already believe. This is important to realize since narrative in the media and public determines how people respond to a humanitarian crisis.
Media coverage reflects the interest society already holds. That is, the media will cover what the people are most interested in. Media coverage shows the societies perceptions and this way it shapes attitudes and response. The media today is selective in its information seeking and disseminating. This is where the harm is done in shaping the role of the media in humanitarian crisis.
It is important to realize that the media plays a critical role in drawing attention towards a crisis. By drawing attention towards a particular crisis, media is a key humanitarian respondent. This way media can save a life or destroy a life. This is because less visibility means less giving and hence prolonging and complicating the humanitarian crisis.
Today, there is an Ebola case in Democratic Republic of Congo, there is a conflict in Tigray region in Ethiopia, there is tension in Eritrea, Chad and Central Africa Republic. The media has been silent on many of these crises. In most cases the media is obsessed by the number of deaths caused by conflict. It is important to understand the power of a story and the media. The media has power and most times it is unregulated. The powerful are made more powerful, the weak are rarely heard. The media coverage attracted money but the problem was never solved.
Whoever controls the narrative in the media, controls the giving. Giving shapes the nature of humanitarian response, people give largely as biased by the media. The biases of the media shape its narrative of the necessary humanitarian crisis, which then has near total control over philanthropic response.
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Dennis Kilama holds degrees from Africa International University, Nairobi Evangelical School of Theology, and Makerere University. In 2021, he earned a M.A. in Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership from Wheaton College. He currently pastors Lugogo Baptist Church and teaches at Africa Renewal University, both located in Kampala, Uganda.