Associate Professor, University of Iowa

Recent Posts

New Article: Indonesia’s English-Language Press

New Article: Indonesia’s English-Language Press

Last year John Carpenter, a PhD student in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, asked if I would be interested in working with him on a project about English-language journalists in Indonesia. John had just spent six weeks in Jakarta observing and interviewing journalists […]

Book Review: The Naked Blogger of Cairo

Book Review: The Naked Blogger of Cairo

Below is the pre-publication text for a review published in the Journal of Communication Inquiry. The final, published review can be found here behind a paywall.  In February 2011, a month after the “Day of Revolt” in Egypt, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker proposed union-busting legislation under […]

New Article: Music Videos, Global Imaginaries and Frictions

New Article: Music Videos, Global Imaginaries and Frictions

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been studying Kenyan music videos. My first article from this research project, “Global frictions and the production of locality in Kenya’s music video industry,” was just published online at Media, Culture & Society. I’m really excited about this piece, and I hope that it will be useful to other scholars of global media.

The article’s main contribution is an analytical framework for studying global cultural production. Here are the main points:

  • People feel a sense of belonging with those outside their direct proximity. This is illustrated nicely by Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities and also by Charles Taylor’s book Modern Social Imaginaries. Within the context of globalization, Manfred Steger and others have written about “global imaginaries”—imagined communities that extend beyond national borders.
  • These social and global imaginaries shape our social practices. Our sense of “fit” with others contributes to our self definition, which, in turn, informs what we do. In this framework, I’m particularly interested on how social imaginaries help shape the practices of media and cultural producers.
  • Frictions occur when cultural producers with different global imaginaries are put in contact with each other. This concept of “friction” was introduced by Anna Tsing in her book, Friction. Tsing writes that when people ostensibly work together, there are differences in how they approach and understand their work. These difference result in frictions that are “productive,” in that they shape the outcome.
  • In the context of cultural production, frictions between hybridized subjects shaped by disparate global imaginaries result in what Arjun Appadurai calls “the production of locality.” These frictions are the building blocks of media and cultural production.

In short, this article provides a framework for scholars of global cultural production to study hybridity as both an antecedent (via global imaginaries) and an outcome (via frictions) of transcultural exchange. I use three cases from the Kenyan music video industry to illustrate how to use this analytical framework. These case studies also reveal three different types of frictions that occur in cultural production.

Here’s the abstract:

This article explores the relationship between global imaginaries, frictions, and the production of locality through an examination of the Kenyan music video industry. Localities are constructed, in part, through the constitutive work of the imagination. Friction occurs when divergent constructions of the global imaginary become entangled with each other. Through an examination of the production, distribution, and reception of Kenyan music videos, this study identifies three types of friction that occur in cultural production: collaborative frictions, in which collectivities work across differences toward a common cause; combative frictions, in which collectivities are positioned in direct opposition to each other; and competitive frictions, in which the interests of different collectivities conflict at times and align at others. This study contributes to scholarship on cultural production in non-Western contexts by articulating hybridity as both an antecedent to and outcome of transcultural exchange.

New Article: Citizen Journalism Beyond the Hype

New Article: Citizen Journalism Beyond the Hype

Recently, I had the great opportunity to work with Joanna Krajewski (a Ph.D. candidate in SJMC at Iowa) on a project about the limits of citizen journalism, using a case study of CNN iReport coverage of cholera in Haiti. While citizen journalism offers the potential to elevate […]

New Technologies and the “Friend or Foe” Question

New Technologies and the “Friend or Foe” Question

REPOST: This article was originally published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen (without links/media). Read the original article.  In 1997, when fewer than a quarter of Americans were online, telecom giant MCI released a TV commercial that captured the cyber-optimism of the time. Over a montage of diverse […]

How Journalists and the Public Get It Wrong About African Poverty

How Journalists and the Public Get It Wrong About African Poverty

REPOST: This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ordinary people’s stories can change the world’s views about Africa

We cannot see salary data in the faces of others, but most of us have similar mental images that structure how we think about poverty in Africa. Search Google Images for ‘African poverty’ to see how yours match up. Dilapidated housing. Tattered shirts. Blank stares. Bellies protruding from parasitic infections. Skin clinging to bones from starvation. Tears.

The visit to South Africa by French economist and author of Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty, should lead us to reflect on how we understand poverty.

To speak of poverty in monetary values, such as living on US$1 or US$2 a day, is to view it as an absolute concept. To approach poverty as a relative concept is to recognise that poverty is contextual – US$1 a day in London is not the same as US$1 a day in the South African township, Diepsloot – and relational, shaped by the expectation gap between the those deemed impoverished and those writing the definitions.

For decades, scholars have criticised media representations of African poverty. Disease, disaster, conflict and poverty have long been hallmarks of global media coverage of Africa and, therefore, have coloured how the rest of the world views the continent.

While more nuanced coverage exists within Africa itself, poverty is still a topic defined by difference. The poor are different from the rest of the public. The poor are different from the journalists who cover poverty. The poor are different from us.

But media coverage of poverty does not reflect how the poor see themselves. There is a gulf between mediated poverty and the lived experience of poverty. So how have journalists and the public gotten it so wrong about African poverty?

Tales of doom and gloom

Members of the press have always struggled to tell the stories of those who do not look, sound, or live like them. While it is easy to blame individual journalists, there are structural explanations for this problem.

Journalists would love to function on an anthropologist’s time table, spending years getting to know the communities they discuss. Instead, most journalists must quickly file stories on deadline while chasing their latest editorial assignment. The daily news cycle does not leave much room for reporters to challenge preconceived notions and question personal biases.

In stories about poverty, journalists typically rely on local nongovernmental organisations to provide local sources and basic information. Resource-strapped nongovernmental organisations are pleased to oblige because any outside attention offers the potential for increased funding and support.

Though most nongovernmental organisations are hard working and well meaning, the nonprofit industry incentivises organisations to continue spreading tales of gloom and doom about African poverty. Donors respond to stories about extreme needs and the good work being done to address those needs. Stories which emphasise community features that locals value are not great avenues for fund raising.

Poor residents also recognise that they can benefit personally from magnifying their struggles when speaking with reporters. In Kenya, for example, journalists regularly compensate slum residents for interviews. The more tragic the tale, the easier it is to play upon the reporter’s sympathies.

That said, we should not criticise the poor for benefiting from their struggles. Interviewees offer value to journalists and news agencies, who turn around and sell their stories to the public. Considering high unemployment rates throughout the continent, being interviewed can serve as a profitable source of income.

Another worrisome trend in poverty coverage is the first-person travel narrative, in which journalists claim to understand poverty by experiencing it for themselves. In these stories, journalists embody pseudo-anthropologists, sharing their newfound experiential knowledge with the public after spending only a few days in poor communities.

The BBC has invested heavily in first-person travel narratives, first with Famous, Rich, and in the Slums, then later with Slum Survivors and Reggie Yates Extreme South Africa.

Though first-person travel narratives reflect the reporter’s experience, these stories fail to question the privilege of the storyteller. Such reporters see themselves as a bridge between the audience and the impoverished, but their stories overshadow the voices of those who understand poverty through living it every day.

Celebrating common humanity

During my research in Kibera, a densely-populated low-income community in Nairobi, residents criticised the gap between how they experienced life and how the media covered their community.

Residents were deeply concerned about insecure employment, disease, and other hardships unfamiliar to those living outside of poverty. But they also voiced great frustration that the media only reported negative stories about their community. Kibera’s media narrative did not capture the fullness of day-to-day life as they experienced it.

Residents told me stories that were complex and contextual, where the homes were of substandard quality but the cost of living suited their lifestyles. They spoke about the vibrant community in Kibera and the kinship they felt with their neighbours while dismissing the isolated nature of Nairobi’s wealthier neighbourhoods. They presented stories in which poverty constrained but did not define their lives.

Journalists who cover poverty would be wise to remember these lessons. They should view their interactions with nongovernmental organisations and local residents with healthy scepticism. They should acknowledge their biases and restrain themselves from projecting unwarranted expertise.

Journalists also should find out what works in poor communities as well as what doesn’t work. They should look beyond the familiar images of dirt, disease, and despair to seek out the mundane. Not to diminish poverty, but to celebrate our common humanity.


New Article: Touring Slums and Telling Stories (About Ourselves)

New Article: Touring Slums and Telling Stories (About Ourselves)

Five years ago, when wrapping up fieldwork in Kibera, I blogged about the controversy surrounding slum tourism. While many Kibera residents resent the fact that so many foreigners tour their community, a few told me they believed there would be less misunderstanding if more outsiders visited Kibera. In a previous […]

New Article: Innovation Clusters & Newsroom Change

New Article: Innovation Clusters & Newsroom Change

The second article from my collaborative newsroom study with Jane Singer, Melissa Tully, and Shawn Harmsen has just been published by Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. Whereas the first piece looked at job insecurity and newswork, this article uses diffusion of innovations theory to examine the various changes happening in American newsrooms. In Diffusion of Innovations, Roger’s […]

Economic Ingenuity among Nairobi’s Poor

Economic Ingenuity among Nairobi’s Poor

A recent story in the The Standard details the various ways Nairobi’s low-income earners maximize their earning potential and spending power. The article, “How Thriving ‘Reject Economy’ is Allowing the Poor to Live High Life of the Rich,” by Dominic Omondi looks beyond the “Dollar a Day” trope to reveal the economic ingenuity of Nairobi’s underclass. A few of the examples:

  • Getting discounted prices for cracked eggs, bruised vegetables, misshapen bread, and defective clothing
  • Finding deals from street vendors and informal markets
  • Recovering and washing discarded, but still trendy, hair weaves
  • Selling old newspapers by the page to butchers and shopkeepers
  • Buying scrap electronics for pennies, fixing them, and selling them for a sizable profit

During my fieldwork, I became fascinated by the economics of Kibera. Inside Kibera, there are lots of people struggling to afford food and rent, but there are also plenty of working televisions, stylish dressers, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Last summer, I learned about the cracked egg discount when helping a friend sell eggs at the market. It’s not surprising that this same logic holds true for a number of different products and services in the informal economy. You just have to know how to navigate the system.

Needless to say, I was captivated by the stories Omondi recounts in this article.

But here’s the problem.

While I saw this as a story about economic ingenuity, Omondi frames it as a morality tale about the frivolity and irrationality of the poor. For instance, he opens the article by introducing a man whose “love for all things luxurious” and his “life of extravagance” belies his “tiny, mud-walled shack in the squalid Korogocho slum.”

Later, Omondi interviews a University of Nairobi economist and a Moi University sociologist who both cast these efforts by the poor as foolish attempts to live symbolically above their means.

Dr XN Iraki, an Economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, says: “People in slums and poor people in general aspire to be better than they are economically. In reality, that would take a long time, maybe even a generation.”

As such, Dr Iraki adds, the poor go through shortcuts by using symbolism like clothing labels or other visible signs of affluence.

“This provides a great market for fakes, making the business very profitable.”

Moses Mutua, a Sociology lecturer at Moi University, adds that this situation is further fuelled by what he terms “comparative need” — wanting to have a TV set in your house because your neighbour or someone you know has one.

“They [the poor] also want to show that they are in a class of their own. They suffer false consciousness; they are low-income earners, but would not want to show their predicament to their neighbours, children or extended family.”

The implication is clear: the poor should act poor.

I don’t want to completely dismiss the influence of social comparison. At the same time, why should we interpret someone making stew with chicken scraps or fixing a broken TV as false consciousness? Why not see this as an example of resourcefulness?

If the characters in this story have discovered ways to maximize their spending power, why view their consumption desires as any less valid than anyone else’s?

While I appreciate Omondi’s final point that the best way to improve living standards is to increase jobs and wages, he takes an unfortunate detour to get there. The takeaway from this story should be that Nairobi’s underclass has developed tactics (in the de Certaeu sense) to navigate an economic system that is structured around their marginalization.

This is worthy of our admiration, not our contempt.

New Article: Precarious Newswork

New Article: Precarious Newswork

In the past few years, Jane Singer, Shawn Harmsen, Melissa Tully and I have been looking into the changing newsroom. If you haven’t noticed, the news industry in the United States has been experiencing tremendous change. The four of us have been exploring how these changes affect those at the front […]