Reporting on a shambolic American election

The way foreign correspondents reported on the US elections shows just how much language matters.

US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after participating in a Thanksgiving video teleconference with members of the military forces at the White House in Washington, on November 26, 2020 [Reuters/Erin Scott]

“America is a Third World country now”, Fortune magazine announced at the beginning of October, just a few weeks ahead of the US elections. Right on cue, as happens elsewhere in the “Third World”, an army of foreign correspondents descended on the country a month later – like vultures drawn to a carcass.

The elections did not disappoint. There were allegations of rigging, a delayed vote count, violent demonstrations, clashes with police, and an authoritarian ruler who will not accept the outcome and may refuse to leave office – pretty standard fare for the brave, foreign correspondents who scour the “Third World” for tales of woe. But strangely enough, what emerged from that particular sh**hole sounded nothing like what we normally hear about other sh**hole countries around the globe.

For example, we were not regaled by heroic tales of the first African reporters to reach the tribal heartland of the US. Nor were we subjected to adjective-laden, hyphenated, descriptions of the country and its resources – oil-rich, poverty-stricken, ethnically divided – or wonder at its big blue skies and breathtaking landscapes.

There was little talk of the admirable resilience of the unusually proud and dignified American people in the face of a devastating pandemic, or their war-like tribalism, or the “terrorist” groups that roam its vast interior.

It is beyond question that such language is seemingly reserved only for events in the Global South. A quasi-satirical thread I started on Twitter in advance of the US election that used many of the above linguistic devices quickly went viral, with many of the responses coming from journalists. It was telling that without any prompts from me, many identified the language in the thread as “covering the US election the way Western media covers African elections”.

From its start as actual foreign correspondence – letters written by or stories stolen from unpaid adventurers and colonialists abroad – to today’s slick, professional production, foreign reporting has always been enveloped in western cultural ethnocentricism. At the start of the colonial period, photographers would routinely stage their photos, using locals as props just like colonial administrators remodelled entire societies to fit their preconceptions. When the reality was not what the photographers expected, they did not change their minds – they got someone to act the part.

Methods may have changed as journalism was professionalised, but the attitudes largely remained the same. In 1989, the late American op-ed columnist, William Pfaff said: “Current press practice shifts correspondents from country to country so they won’t ‘go native’ and will always see things through American eyes.” He noted that the practice “institutionalizes ignorance and guarantees the perpetuation of stereotype. Americans look at the world through tourists’ eyes”.

The things that happen elsewhere are interpreted, not using the cultural contexts in which they occur, but rather within Western cultural frames for primarily Western audiences, which keeps them both exotic and somewhat unfathomable. Add to this the pressures of explaining complex foreign social phenomena within a few column inches in a limited period and you end up with pre-stocked clichés, stereotypes and even pre-written copy, which is why so much of it sounds the same.

“Journalists are sent off to all sorts of catastrophes and political feuds overseas and told to file tight, comprehensible copy, and quickly,” wrote Ed Harriman, author of Hack: Home Truths About Foreign News. “Those who don’t, don’t go overseas next time. To function like this, journalists have to have fairly durable, well-stocked kit bags, not just with a few clean shirts or blouses, but of attitudes and recognisable perspectives as well… in the end what’s going to be printed has to make sense in terms editors believe their readers will understand.”

These conventions for foreign reporting built up over more than a century have now been exported across the world, including the cultural assumptions embedded within them – such as that audiences do not need constant reminding that Washington is a coastal city or that the US and the UK are oil-rich states, but they do when the subjects are in the exotic and mysterious “Third World”.

In adopting these conventions, when non-Western correspondents find themselves in Western capitals, they do not always act as the cultural interpreters that their Western counterparts are. Rather than see Western society through their own cultural lenses, they mirror it in its own terms – basically reporting Western countries as they see themselves.

This perhaps makes them better foreign correspondents than their Western counterparts as their reporting is devoid of the patronising descriptions that infest much of the latter’s output which makes their reports wildly dissimilar, even when covering remarkably similar scenarios.

Western media has a long way to go to catch up. Before it can give up using gruesome images or condescending language, it will need to learn to see other societies and to report on them in their own terms, and not as exotic sh**holes of colonial lore.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.