Genocides and trailer park closures: giving a voice to the voiceless

Disclaimer: this isn’t a cutesy post. There aren’t any funny pictures or jokes. There’s one video clip, and it’s something I hope you find as poignant and disturbing as I did. I find it wrong to be glib when talking about the African genocide crisis.

Over the summer, I attempted to watch Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” and promptly learned that I cannot handle watching films about the African genocides and wars. It’s not that I want to remain blind to the fact carnage is being committed every minute in Africa; I just can’t take watching fictionalized accounts of children being handed machine guns and villages being massacred.

Naturally, I experienced quite a bit of trepidation when our news reporting lecture began to watch “Reporter,”  a documentary about Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who covers the war in Congo. It’s hard to put into words my reflections on the film, just because there were so many feelings I had while watching Kristoff interact with sallow villagers, a dying woman and the warlord behind all of it.

After the first half of the film, it seemed immediately to me that my work — everyone’s work, really — at the Missourian has little to no significance in the big picture. Covering board meetings and school assemblies is irrelevant to what Kristof has done by bringing the inhumane crisis in Congo to the American readers’ eyes. He has seen so many atrocities and handled it with grace and intelligence. My initial reaction: I can’t see myself doing this at all.

Then, Maya Angelou’s words echoed back to me just as strongly as they did at the beginning of this semester:

I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.

That really has to play a part in how Kristoff’s work; he has to be able to take a dying woman to a hospital one day, sit down with the warlord in the area the next and be able to do all of it with a clear mind unmuddled by his own opinions. The key component I saw in his reporting was empathy. Like I reflected on back in August, it’s important that we remember that we are first human beings, then reporters. Unfortunately, so many people view journalists as nothing but exploitive gotcha-media folk; I think this comes from the age of talking heads and paparazzi dominating the daily newscasts. Then you look at Kristoff and similar reporters to realize that, sadly, it’s only a small percentage of so-called “journalists” that have the loudest voice, rather than the large percentage of true reporters and storytellers interested in bringing issues to the public light. The writers who strive to give a voice to the voiceless.

I’ve heard that term — “give a voice to the voiceless” — over and over since I first started my journalism education at the University of Missouri; it seems to be the mantra of good reporting. The best way to explain this theory is that journalists (are supposed to) bring to the public eye the issues that otherwise would go silently unnoticed.

Here’s how Kristof explains the importance of writing his columns:

Clearly, Kristof’s work has contributed to the American people’s knowledge of what is going on in Africa. So how does our work at the Missourian play a part? We don’t have a massive genocide or cultural bloodshed in Columbia, Missouri, and I can almost assure you we never will. So how do we give a voice to the voiceless without having a voiceless population as desperate as that in Congo?

First: we do have a voiceless population. Every place has a voiceless population. It’s a joke in Columbia that everyone who lives here has been interviewed at least once; this is simply not true. The main example I point to is Regency Trailer Park.

For those not following the story, know that Regency Trailer Park is a decades-old park home to around 70 people. Recently, the owners have decided to shut it down, leaving those 70 inhabitants who already have so little with nowhere to live. I am proud to say that the Missourian has had a huge hand in bringing these people’s stories into the public view through its extensive coverage of the situation.

In this way, we have succeeded in giving a voice to the voiceless. I never had the privilege to work on a Regency story, however I still feel like I have been a part of telling an untold aspect of life through the Viking re-enactor story I wrote back in October. That’s one of the reasons I love journalism; it’s a matter of telling the stories that otherwise go overlooked.

None of the Missourian reporters have had the chance to report in Congo or Darfur yet; a good percentage of us never will. Still, we have the important duty of giving a voice to the voiceless even when the voiceless, regardless if the number is 70 instead of the 4 million (and growing) dead in Congo.

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One Comment

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  1. I remember watching this. It kind of grabs you and doesn’t let go… or at least it shouldn’t.

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