By Aimen Khalid Butt
In an attempt to “investigate” the drinking habits of Ugandans, the VICE team put poor villagers in front of a camera and made fun of them as they got drunk. This online video labeling Uganda as the “drunkest place on earth” currently has over 1.8 million hits. Unfortunately, this exploitation of the vulnerable, this contempt for culture, and this celebration of tasteless humor passes as journalism today and is endorsed by journalists as highly reputed as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. The growing VICE media empire, which includes VICE magazine and online documentaries, has a new HBO show. VICE claims to offer “news from the edge” in which hosts Shane Smith, Thomas Morton, and Ryan Duffy visit different parts of the world to investigate stories and report what they say is really going on.
While VICE’s attempt to bring international issues to the forefront in a new, exciting manner should be celebrated, it shirks impartiality, context, and accuracy. Its goal, instead, is sensationalization. VICE co-founder Shane Smith says he is simply “telling stories,” but their stories aren’t just exploitative; they’re hurting journalism by compromising the quality and content of reporting for increased entertainment value.
And it's working. VICE is making money and capturing the attention of young people around the world. VICE Magazine alone claims to reach 1.2 million people in 26 different countries, not to mention the milllions of viewers of its HBO show and online videos.
There are two responsibilities that should come with reporting news: It has to be true, and it has to be fair. This, however, seems to be something the VICE team hasn't given much thought to. Their show can too easily be confused for real investigative journalism. There is no doubt as to the immense entertainment value that the VICE HBO show holds for viewers looking to spend 30 minutes watching something they have no knowledge of, but when it comes to a complete and fair representation of events, VICE loses points.
VICE examined the issue of Kashmir, the contested area between India and Pakistan, in their second episode, but neither side of the conflict was fairly represented. VICE presented Pakistan’s side of the story through the opinions of a professor who was fired from a university in Pakistan, reportedly for his extreme ideological views—clearly not an indicative spokesperson for the country. He seemed like a convenient option for the VICE team to interview, since his over-the-top views on Kashmir perfectly aligned with VICE's portrayal. Ironically, the Indian Army Officer who was interviewed for the show seemed more impartial about the Kashmir issue than the host, Shane Smith.
The carelessness of the show comes off as intentional, as if designed to provoke. In the first episode, sweeping statements like “North Korea is the worst place on earth” and “the Indo-Pak border is the most dangerous border in the world” were heard frequently with nothing to substantiate these claims. How is the India-Pakistan border more dangerous than, say, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border?
As a Pakistani, I failed to recognize the Pakistan that VICE showed on television. I could barely identify the parts of the country it depicted. The footage from Pakistan mostly showed broken roads, dilapidated buildings, shabby people, donkey carts, riots, protests, etc., all of which–although do exist in Pakistan–do not define the majority of it. This is probably why I’m not too shocked anymore when Americans frequently ask me how, coming from Pakistan, I speak such good English. The show indulges in lazy stereotypes that affect real people.
The problems associated with this kind of journalism, if that’s what you want to call it, are simple. To start off, when only convenient parts of a story—the parts that sell—are shown, like harrowing and gory images of broken limbs and amputated body parts sprawled all over after a suicide attack in Afghanistan, viewers are deprived of the context of what’s actually going on. In this particular case, viewers could be led to believe that Islam, as a religion, might condone the killing of the innocent in the name of God, which is contrary to what it actually preaches. Since the whole story is never told, viewers tend to dwell not on the people involved in the conflict, but instead imagine themselves as the three young, privileged men venturing into dangerous territories. It masquerades as journalism, but the stories it tells have much more in common with reality TV than with reality.
What I found most disappointing upon seeing the show, however, was the way VICE hosts view and comment on the culture and society of the countries they visit. While they walk through countries like the Philippines and interact with people, they make comments like “that’s so weird” after they're closely escorted by a security officer while walking through a rebel group’s training camp. Their comments are often disrespectful to those who live there, as well as disdainful of the local culture.
VICE hosts Shane Smith, Thomas Morton, and Ryan Duffy risk their lives to visit dangerous areas in countries like North Korea and Afghanistan to cover stories, offering a rare view to those of us on the outside. Not many people would sign up to meet Taliban representatives in Afghanistan or visit the militia camp of a rebel group in the Philippines. VICE also manages to convey certain angles that we normally don't see. Their interview with children recruited by the Taliban to become suicide bombers is a moving example of what should be part of a compelling and important story. It would, however, be more commendable if something more substantial came out of their experiences that actually added to impartial, holistic information to the knowledge base of the world.
The shift in media coverage from responsible, neutral reporting to making anything and everything that sells leads to misrepresentation of events and issues. VICE is increasingly an important news hub for the world’s youth, and with that should come responsibility. VICE can still tell a good story, but they shouldn’t sacrifice their unique potential in favor of easy sensationalism.
Aimen Khalid Butt is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo source: Vice Publishers]