Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thoughts on National Geographic and Orientalism

I'm finally reading Edward Said's Orientalism, after years of quoting snippets in papers and conversations (yes, I've been that person). With Said's theories in mind, I realize now what bothered me about Malaria, the epic treatise on the disease that recently appeared in National Geographic.

After a 2002 ethical snafu ended his career at the New York Times Magazine, one might expect author Michael Finkel to be more circumspect about flouting journalistic convention. Finkel is that rare breed—he's such a great storyteller that he sometimes forgets not all journalistic rules exist to be broken.

But it's not Finkel's signature lack of quotes that bothers me here, nor even his melodramatic personification of the malaria parasite itself. What bothers me is this: Finkel wrote a 6000-word essay on the ravages malaria has wrought on the people of Africa. He focused at length on Zambia, using that government's broad anti-malaria efforts as a case study for what other nations might adopt.

But Finkel does not quote a single African. Let's remember that in Finkel's article, it is Zambians who are catching, fighting, curing and dying from this disease. And yet, as far as Finkel is concerned, the twenty-first century might as well be the early days of empire, when all non-European people were considered "savages" fresh from the bush.

Omissions like Finkel's create a world of misconceptions and imperfect information. And the consequences of acting on imperfect information are vast, particularly from the perspective of global health policy.

Finkel's only possible defense could be that he didn't know or wasn't aware of the historic voicelessness of the people of Africa. But ignorance and lack of self- and social-awareness are hardly much of a defense. Finkel owed it to Zambia to let its people represent themselves. Instead, the closest he comes is quoting a Maryland-based scientist with an ethnic-sounding name.

As journalists we must be more honest about our biases, and more aware of where our work falls in the global spectrum of intellectual debate.

Combating "Orientalism" and voicelessness is not just a question of fairness. It is imperative if we want to formulate and implement policies—or even just function—in a globalized world.

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