The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:
Weather Media in the Public Sphere
Dr. John Durham Peters
María Rosa Menocal Professor of English &
Professor of Film and Media Studies
May 2 (Thursday) ¦ 1:30-3:00PM ¦ BMC 5.208
On its face, weather sounds like the most banal and mundane thing possible. Ordinary people look down on talking about it and journalists often regard it as the lowest kind of news. This talk aims to show that the accusation that talking about the weather is intellectually empty is hardly the case in the age of climate change, and even dangerous. The rise of weather as a topic of conversation coincides with the rise of the bourgeois public sphere. More broadly, weather is a key part of media history. The history of human interaction with weather is also a history of cultural techniques and media technologies. Dramatists and divines have sought meaning from atmospheric events. Reading the skies is one paradigm case of human-nature interaction, and studying weather can stand in as part for whole as an inquiry into the environments humans have made or unmade. The history of modern weather forecasting is also a history of the militarization of the sky and oceans, and is co-extensive with the history of modern telecommunications, computation, and reporting. Weather raises two questions of profound interest to recent media theory: how mundane infrastructures are full of meaning and how vaporous or evanescent entities can be tracked, recorded, and programmed. Talking about the weather is not dumb; it may be essential.
Dr. John Durham Peters is a leading scholar in the area of media history, communication theory, and philosophy. He is the María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and of Film & Media Studies at Yale University. Previously, Peters taught at the University of Iowa between 1986-2016. He is the author a range of books, including Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition, and most recently, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. He has held fellowships with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Leverhulme Trust.
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CASE STUDY: Accuracy and Effects in Reporting on War-Torn Congo
Laura Heaton, a reporter for the NGO, traveled to Luvungi in 2011, a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that was known for atrocities such as mass rape that the community had endured in war-torn past decades. These women had all been attacked by rebel troops surrounding the village as a further weapon in the violence. Many articles had been written on the mass rape—the largest instance in the world, with 242 reported survivors over a period of four days—with detailed reports from the women on their experiences and trauma.
A couple of years after all the stories had been published, Heaton traveled back to Luvungi with the goal of speaking to the community about how things have improved (or not) since the last reports had been made about the crimes against this community. When she arrived, she was greeted with villagers simply lining up to once again repeat their stories of their “systematic rape.” After listening to the stories, she sensed that something was wrong. After looking for more information from the doctors of the village and some of the women themselves, Heaton arrived at a startling realization: although over 200 women had reported being survivors of rape, the actual numbers of rape victims seemed much lower.
Most of the women, Heaton learned, didn’t come forward with stories until after the many Non-Governmental Organizations arrived on the scene to help victims of the violence and rape. As Heaton continued in her research and talked to more of the women (promising anonymity) she realized that most of them had lied in an attempt to get much-needed medical help from the NGOs. The organizations gave more food and attention, she claimed, to women who simply said that they had survived rape.
After talking with the women and learning the truth, Heaton wrote and published an article titled “What Happened in Luvungi?” for Foreign Policy about her findings. While she didn’t critique the amount of aid given to Luvungi—“no one suggests that giving millions of dollars to help this vulnerable, traumatized, population isn’t warranted”—Heaton did question the heavy emphasis on sexual violence in aid organizations (Heaton, 2013). She noted that this may have created the perception that women only get adequate support and welfare if they are victims of rape. Caring for this community, she continued to visit the village periodically to stay up to date with the women and their experiences.
Since publishing the article, Heaton has received heated criticism about her story. Eve Ensler, a playwright who opened a recovery center in the Congo in 2011, told Heaton that the article was unnecessary and will lead to new problems for the women of the Congo. Ensler argued that by pointing out the lying of many of the women involved, the people who funded the recovery centers and foreign aid might not see this as a cause worth supporting any more. Because some women lied, now all the women who did need help and who had been victims of rape would be hurt even more. In another follow-up article posted on Foreign Policy, Micah Williams and Will Cragin disputed her facts and accused her of simply wanting to discredit rape victims.
Heaton felt very conflicted about her position. As a reporter, she believed in telling the truth and nothing but the truth. Like many reporting on war-torn areas of Africa, she also felt that the west too often forgot the problems it helped to create on the continent with its policies and legacy of colonialism. Her article ostensibly focused on the problems with inflating rape numbers, and was not arguing that rape isn’t a problem in similar areas of Africa. However, she herself began to question how much the truth matters in journalism if it conflicts the pursuing the general welfare, leading her to recently question if publishing her original article was the right thing to do as a journalist concerned about African communities (Warner, 2017).
- What values are in conflict in Heaton’s account of the Luvungi situation and its reporting?
- What went wrong in the original reporting of the Luvungi atrocities? Did Heaton do the right thing in her reporting on the situation and past stories?
- Should Heaton have looked the other way on “correcting” the previous Luvungi stories? What if her corrections hurt donations and attention to this war-torn area?
- How should a journalist balance the consequences of their reporting for the social good versus the journalist duty to tell the truth? What if telling the truth mitigates the help a story could bring to a community?
- Do reporters have a duty to correct past reporting done by others, especially when it might undo helpful effects of those already published accounts?
Heaton, Laura. “What Happened in Luvungi.” Foreign Policy, 4 March 2013.
Available at: www.foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/04/what-happened-in-luvungi/
Warner, Gregory, and Fountain, Nick. producers. “The Congo We Listen To.”
Rough Translation, Episode 1, National Public Radio, 28 August 2017. Available at:
Williams, Micah, and Cragin, Will. “Our Experience in Luvungi.” Foreign Policy, 5
March 2013. Available at: www.foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/05/our-experience-in-luvungi/
Emma Matus & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 12, 2019
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