Kony 2012: Journalism and the viral video

There is simply no doubt the story of Kony has been well documented. He has been on front pages and television screens on and off for the better part of a decade. And yet, until now, until this suddenly viral YouTube video, there has been no global popular movement demanding he be found.

David Michael Lamb looks at YouTube activism

The Kony 2012 video that went viral this week on YouTube has woken people up not just to the atrocities of the Lord's Resistance Army and the man who runs it, Joseph Kony.

It also reminds us of a problem that we in the traditional media have often grappled with: how to reach our youngest audiences.

But first, let's clear something up. The video, by the Uganda-based advocacy group Invisible Children, states that no one knows who Joseph Kony is, and suggests that the story of what Kony has done hasn't been adequately told.

That is simply not true. There have been countless stories written and presented in newspapers, online, on TV and on radio, especially since Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 for almost 20 years of war crimes in four African countries: Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

A year or so ago when I was guest hosting The Current, I interviewed author Jane Bussmann, who had spent years investigating and documenting Kony's crimes and the horrors of the Lord's Resistance Army for British newspapers.

The leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army rebels, Joseph Kony, addresses his first news conference in 20 years of rebellion, in Nabanga, Sudan, Aug. 1, 2006, when he proposed a ceasefire that would see war crimes against him dropped. (Reuters)

Bussmann did it at significant personal risk and out of a conviction that the world needed to know what was going on. Many other journalists have done the same.

There is simply no doubt the story of Kony has been well documented. He has been on front pages and television screens on and off for the better part of a decade — though admittedly not so much in the past few years.

Still, in all that time his dwindling "army" has continued to carry out its atrocities and he has remained on the most wanted list by the International Criminal Court.

And yet, until now, until this suddenly viral YouTube video, there has been no global popular movement demanding he be found.

Why is that? Is it simply because young people today are tuning out traditional media, as some would have it? Or is there something else going on here?

Not journalism

This isn't a story about today's younger generation being dumb or uninterested in important issues. The fact that this video has been viewed over 56 million times since it was uploaded on YouTube on March 5 proves the opposite.

The Kony 2012 video is remarkable because it has managed to reach a huge number of, presumably, young people in such a short time.

How is it that this video has done something that a decade of stories from traditional media outlets wasn't able to do?

Those of us who report on and bring international stories to the public don't want our audiences to be small or niche or fragmented, or only over 30.

Journalists believe these stories are important and, as we've seen recently in Syria, some are prepared to risk dying to get the story out.

We badly want people of all ages to pay attention to these important stories, which is why CBC News has put such emphasis in recent years on online news and getting our stories out to people on their cellphones and other devices, to broaden our reach.

As the producer of Canada's most listened–to radio newscast, I know people care.

I also know that the portion of our audience that's under 30 is not as large as we would like. Yet the Kony 2012 video uses many of the same techniques we do: personal stories of those directly affected, interviews with key players (in this case, Jose Moreno Ocampo, the lead prosecutor at the ICC), and the holding of politicians to account.

The video, of course, is not journalism, and doesn't pretend to be. It is activism. It seduces people into thinking that if they do something or pay money, they can right a wrong.

It says putting up a poster really could lead to the arrest of Joseph Kony — which may or may not happen.

Remember, the Ugandan army, with U.S. Special Forces help, has been searching for Kony for almost four years now and hasn't found him.

Shared purpose

That activism, though, that shared sense of purpose, is clearly part of the video's contagion, part of a conscious campaign to link Kony 2012 to Tahrir Square and some of the other great people-power moments of our times.

Social networking, which is geared around the sharing of common interests and what's hot, is clearly a rising phenomenon. The latest research suggests it accounts for one of every six minutes spent online.

But it is not the role of journalists to advocate for causes in this way. It is our responsibility to tell these stories to the biggest audience possible, so that individuals can make their own decisions about what to do.

But it is also our responsibility to call attention to important stories even when it's unrealistic or impossible for individuals to influence events directly.

A public campaign, no matter how big, is unlikely to affect Iran's nuclear program and the threat of war in the Middle East. But that doesn't mean the story isn't important, and that we should ignore it.

As journalists, it is also our responsibility to help people understand why it's crucial to be engaged with what's going on in the world.

Journalists sometimes fall into the trap of thinking the answer is obvious. We know it's important, so everyone else does too, right? Uh, no. Not always.

The good news is that there is no doubt young people care about big international issues, will pay attention to them, and will act to change things if they think they can.

For those of us in the traditional media, the challenge is to get more of them to pay attention to the stories we tell. Not through advocacy, of course.

But by convincing them that not paying attention will always let people such as Joseph Kony off the hook.