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VICE Wins Friends and Enemies Alike with International Reporting

The style of reporting is winning fans and critics alike. People stick of stodgy reporting from the standard bearers like the New York Times and the Guardian are drawn to the personal nature of VICE's reports.

130502-ep05-shane-outside-1024There is a (relatively) new kid in town to the international reporting scene.

VICE, the magazine founded in Canada and moved to the US hipster capital of Brooklyn, is bringing its reporter-drive and raw style of reporting around the world. You may remember that former NBA star Dennis Rodman went to North Korea a few months back. He joined the Harlem Globetrotters and VICE tagged along to document the story.

The style of reporting is winning fans and critics alike. People stick of stodgy reporting from the standard bearers like the New York Times and the Guardian are drawn to the personal nature of VICE’s reports. Others find the magazine’s approach too negative, lacking in context and self-absorbed. The journalists at VICE are front and center to not only offer their own commentary, but to actively participate.  A collaborative effort between VICE and HBO with the backing of Bill Mahar, sends correspondents to interview child suicide bombers in Afghanistan, witness tensions on the India-Pakistan border and join women in Mauritania who are over-eating to achieve the plump figure that is considered desirable by men.

Others are turned away by the brash style of VICE and its correspondents. They point out that news agency seeks out the worst examples and provides little actual context to what the situation is really like in the given report.

Traditional reporting would include interviews, stock footage and narration to fill in the gaps. VICE does that, but adds a twist by asking the reporter to participate. Thomas Morton joins a young woman as she tries to fatten up in Mauritania and he takes part in the mass-shooter drills that a school in Albuquerque performs. The immersion technique is meant to draw in the audience. Or, as Maureen Ryan describes it in the Huffington Post, it’s bro reporting.

The introduction to the show explains that it’s going to help “expose the absurdity of the human condition,” which generally involves bros in other countries being totally uncool to other bros. What’s up with that, bro?

The 2010 release of the VICE Guide to Liberia was met with strong opposition for its depiction of the country. The audience is introduced to Liberian warlord General Butt Naked who tells of child sacrifice before battle. And then there is cannibalism. VICE’s Shane Smith explained to the Huffington Post at the time the video was released:

Cannibalism was a big deal. How many people talked about it, how it was sort of prevalent. During the war, people would eat human flesh for necessity, but also for ritual. And it still continues. People would point at the old Masonic Lodge and say, ‘Oh, there was a lot of cannibalism there.’ Some of it is probably rumor and some of it is urban myth, but every single person you talk to is like ‘oh, yeah, yeah.’

Ethan Zuckerman of MIT thought that the video touched on some nuanced issues in regards to achieving justice in the wake of Liberia’s civil war. Coupled with the reach of a new audience, Zuckerman was generally positive in his review of it.

Something about the VBS documentaries – the high quality of production, the unfamiliarity of the subject matter, the narrative of “adventure” rather than history – is generating a lot of buzz. As much as I want to object to the VBS video, which sensationalizes, uses historical footage with little context, and is a classic example of parachute psuedo-journalism, I have to admit that it’s a compelling piece of storytelling and that it caught my attention. Rather than critiquing it, I’m interested in picking it apart and starting to understand what makes it work. What could documentary filmmakers learn from VBS to generate a wider audience for their work? Is it possible to broaden your audience without playing to their desire to see something shocking and outrageous? Is it acceptable to use shock and outrage to get people to pay attention to parts of the world they know and care little about?

Al Jazeera recently covered the debate over VICE on the heels of its premiere on HBO. The founders discuss their style of reporting and people from traditional media outlets air some of their concerns with the style of VICE. Academic and blogger Sean Jacobs offered commentary as a part of the Listening Post for Al Jazeera and reproduced his short thoughts in a blog post.

On balance, VICE’s Africa coverage is more bad than good, even when they try not to—whether they cover cyber-fraud in Ghana, embark on “Guides” to Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo that resemble “Heart of Darkness” or exaggerate alcohol abuse in Uganda.

Basically they’re just another ambitious media company (Shane Smith, one of the founders, refers to VICE as “the Time Warner of the Streets”) interested in market share, synergy and branding. So, yes, they may be introducing a whole lot of young people to international affairs, but in the process they also work very hard to undermine their own credibility.

I was contacted by Al Jazeera to offer some comments as well in regards to VICE and its new series. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to record a short video to be included, so I will end with a few quick thoughts.

I have followed VICE along at a distance for some time now. To get a better sense of VICE’s work, I have been following along with their HBO series. Much like Jacobs argues, the individual reports cover a wide range. In the first episode Ryan Duffy goes to the Philippines to report on its violent culture. He starts with a politician who lost his family to an attack, but dispatches with him quickly to go into the field and hang out with the armed groups.

The report felt less like a news story and more like a video showing an American surrounded by kids with RPGs. The visuals were striking, but the news information was threadbare. Contrast that against last week’s report on extremism in Europe. Smith visits anarchists in Spain and fascists in Greece to show how austerity and unemployment are driving fringe radical groups. The larger commentary of the problems with the global financial system and the solutions applied come through by showing the groups.

A friend who watches the show described what he learned through the report on the tensions on the border of Pakistan and India. He did not know that the two countries were at odds. Though VICE played up the doom scenarios of nuclear attacks, the extreme again brought viewers towards a story that he or she may have not know.

To that extent the reporting by VICE is working. While I may not personally like the style and hesitate to call it journalism, VICE may show how to bring complex and global issues to a larger audience. For someone who bangs on about more people needing to be informed about global affairs, it is a welcome progression. However, the line is a fine one to walk. Getting drunk in Uganda and sensationalizing cannibalism in Liberia are times when that line seems to disappear.

What do you think? Weigh in with your comments.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.