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The Long View on Kony

Photo Credit: Mohammed Ademo / Global Newsroom

In 1997, journalist Elizabeth Rubin went to Acholiland, in northern Uganda, to investigate atrocities committed by a notoriously ruthless gang of guerrillas, the Lord’s Resistance Army. She spent five weeks talking with a Catholic school nun whose female students were seized in a nighttime raid by the LRA, with some of the students who survived that ordeal, and with former child soldiers and families of children kidnapped by the LRA leader, Joseph Kony, who, like the other residents of the region, is an ethnic Acholi.

Rubin’s gripping story about Kony, the LRA and children recruited to fight for it spread across nine pages of the March 23, 1998, New Yorker magazine.

As we know now, Rubin’s 14-year-old article did not stop the LRA and did not lead to the arrest of Joseph Kony – the goal of the Kony 2012 advocacy video that has been viewed more than 86 million times on YouTube and 17.7 million on Vimeo since it was posted in early March.

There are many differences between Rubin’s story – an excellent piece of long form journalism – and the advocacy video Kony 2012.

But both sought to shine a light on the perpetrators of LRA atrocities. And, thanks to social media. “It’s interesting to me that this video managed to shed more light on this guy [Joseph Kony] than anything else has,” said Rubin, who noted that when her piece ran in The New Yorker, “We didn’t have YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.”

Elizabeth Rubin is not the only journalist whose work preceded Kony 2012 in exposing the LRA leader. Over the past decade and a half, CNN, the UN’s IRIN news service, The Washington Post, The New York Times and many others have all chronicled LRA atrocities, often with in-depth reporting.

Among the many whose work got far less attention than Kony 2012, some were quick to praise the video’s consciousness-raising achievement.

“I think it’s amazing to see how a small group of activists have been able to spark a global debate about a forgotten conflict,” said Financial Times journalist Matthew Green, who spent six months in Africa, meeting with Kony, LRA soldiers and Kony victims to report his 2008 book, The Wizard of the Nile: the Hunt for Africa’s Most Wanted.

But others have sounded more defensive.

“We at CNN have been following this story for years, we’ve done stories about it for years and I’ve worked in central Africa for years,” CNN anchor Anderson Cooper said during a recent segment about the viral video.

On his March 12 program, Daily Show host Jon Stewart ran the Cooper clip as part of a comedic jab at the mainstream media’s reaction to Kony 2012.

“Mainly, the media just seems annoyed that it took this guy to get people to listen,” concluded Stewart.

It’s easy to see why, after months or years of journalistic pursuit of Kony, some journalists would be annoyed that an advocacy video on the same subject would eclipse their work.

“Sales figures of Wizard of Nile remain classified, but I can reveal they have not yet reached the 17m hits achieved by #StopKony video,” tweeted Matthew Green, in a lighthearted comparison with his 2008 book.

Kony 2012’s critics in the world of journalism have other grounds for annoyance. The video, they point out, lacks the history and context reported in long form articles and books on Kony and the LRA. It oversimplifies a complex story, and tells much of it through the character of the filmmakers’ young American son.

“This isn’t journalism,” said Howard French, Columbia Journalism School professor and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.  “The point isn’t really to inform people objectively but to get to people in a way they will sign up to your cause and donate money to you.”

Stephen Shepard, Dean of the City University of New York School of Journalism, agreed. “By using his own son to tug at our emotions, [filmmaker] Jason Russell puts the issue in childish terms,” Shepard wrote in an email response.  “What made Kony possible?  Why is he doing it?  Is it still going on? Where is Kony? How unsafe is Uganda today? We never find out.”

Mainstream media did not catch onto the buzz about Kony 2012 until three days after the video had swept the online world. A study by the Pew Research Center showed a wide generational gap in terms of how Americans first heard about the video. Pew found that 35 percent of young adults learned of it through social media or other online sources. Only about 17 percent of those 50 years and older learned about the video via Internet sources, the study said.

“I found out about #kony2012 from my daughter’s Facebook page,” tweeted CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis on March 12. “Yes, this is the new media.”

When they did start talking about it, much of the mainstream media focused on criticisms – of Invisible Children, the charity that made the video, and of the film’s content and storytelling style.

Rubin agrees with Kony 2012 critics that the video is overly simplistic. But she also said some of the condemnation of the filmmakers is misplaced. “It’s a pity that they have been sort of tarnished as if they were the criminals, the Invisible Children. They are not,” Rubin said.  “The criminal is Joseph Kony.”

Mohammed Ademo is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter (@OPride).