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Ghana: Digital Dumping Grounds

April 24th, 2012 · No Comments

Lauren, Becca, Sam, Nick
Ghana Digital Dumping Ground
Producer Peter Klein
April 25, 2012

Convergence of Journalism and Film

Demonstrated through an investigative documentary

Peter W. Klein is a journalist and filmmaker, and is currently a director of the journalism program at the University of British Columbia. He has won Emmy awards for his work on CBS’s show 60 Minutes and, along with some of his students, for their documentary “Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground”. This documentary promotes awareness of the growing issue of e-waste dumping in developing countries. Klein and his students traveled to several different areas of the world to accumulate evidence of their extensive research. This documentary exemplifies some of the issues that journalists often go through during filming and production, such as content censoring by television networks, and some safety issues during the filming process.

Klein teaches a course called “International Reporting” in which he and his graduate students cover very high profile stories.  During his lecture, Klein noted that it was tough to convince major networks to air his documentary.  Unlike some of the commercial networks, PBS is a not for profit.  Klein’s example illustrates the tension between corporate and public interest.  There are some parallels between Klein’s attempts to get networks to air his “under covered” stories:  the concept of spectrum scarcity and Newton Minow’s philosophy that television is a teaching tool (Class Notes).

It was very expensive for Klein and his students to travel to Ghana, India, and China.  According to Reed E. Hundt, the 1934 Communications Act requires the FCC to “grant and renew licenses to use the electromagnetic spectrum only after determining whether the public interest, convenience, and necessity will be served” (1089).  This highlights the notion of spectrum scarcity.  Unlike newspapers and magazines, the airwaves are limited.  Klein mentioned that one of his students pitched a story and it was rejected by the networks because it had been covered by another journalist a few years earlier. They didn’t want to produce and air repetitive content.  But Klein noted that a lot had changed in the story since it was first covered (Klein).  Minow indicated that television is meant to serve as a teaching tool.  But, the difficulties that Klein faced pitching his documentary to networks shows their tendency to filter or cut out content that they don’t think will get high ratings.  Klein also produced segments on 60 Minutes.  Originally a journalist from newspaper and radio, he wasn’t used to this type of reporting. During our class discussion, he talked about how the news had become a show about journalist doing journalism.  It was a new kind of reality TV (Klein). He noted in his lecture that terms such as “casting” were used and the reporters were in a sense “brands” for the network.  Programs such as “Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground” may bring in fewer viewers than stories about hot button issues like the Iraq War.  This clearly demonstrates how commercial interests and ratings rule television.

During his presentation, Klein discussed some of the safety issues surrounding the filming of “Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground.”  He mentioned several other news networks that had attempted filming similar content, but were unable to complete their projects due to sometimes violent run-ins with local authorities and citizens trying to protect this “industry.” During filming in China, Klein opted to leave his students behind on some of the excursions to avoid exposing them to potential mishaps (Klein). This more dangerous side of investigative journalism can be compared to “Live From Baghdad.” In this film, Robert Wiener, a CNN producer, along with his team, film front-row footage in the midst of violence in Iraq. The journalists put themselves at direct risk of injury, but do so to get the powerful footage to support their story. In both circumstances, the filmers put their safety as a second priority to obtaining strong footage. This demonstrates the dedication of some journalists to provide their viewers with images that prove the legitimacy of their stories.

After listening to Peter Klein speak both in our class and at the lecture, it is clear how much influence media has on our lives with respect to what we see and what we don’t see.  The stories that are pitched to the executive producers are often turned down, which makes the people in these positions incredibly powerful in determining what an audience is provided.  It was interesting to hear him speak of the differences a show has when being aired on different stations and networks around the world, and how typically the United States sees less of the story in a visual and graphical sense.  This is where we can draw in the importance of media literacy and being able to understand that what see is not always the entire truth, or maybe not the truth at all, as we saw in the movie Shattered Glass.  We have to be able to recognize that some of the stories may be fabricated in one way or another, and that even if the story is true, it might not be the full story.  As Peter demonstrated, media literacy is incredibly important even when watching documentaries, because often information is cut out and shaped to fit a particular demographic.  To recognize this is to be media literate, which is becoming increasingly important in our society.

Important Quotes/General Statements

  1. “People in Ghana thought they were welcoming donations that would help bridge the technological and electronic divide.  When the shipments arrive, the majority of the products don’t work”
  2. Ghana is now listed on the top ten sources of cyber crime due to the hacking of personal information that is left on hard-drives of recycled electronics.
  3. “It’s a myth to think you can solve the problem solely with technology” – on the attempt to fix e-waste in India.
  4. “In a small town in China, miles and miles of electronic waste builds up.  Everyone is doing something to sort through and distribute recycled electronics.  Many women literally cook electronic data boards in order to find traces of gold, all the while poisoning themselves with lead fumes.”
  5. “I try and sift through all of these electronics for evidence.  I believe in finding evidence and documentation of these problems” – Environmental journalist from Ghana

Discussion Questions

  1. Both in class and during his lecture, Peter Klein talked about how stories are constructed in order to fit the target audience.  Different stations or networks around the world may show different versions of the same program.  Do you think our society is partially at fault for this self-censorship?  Is there a way to change our world view in a way that would allow us the ability to sit through more graphic and disturbing programs that would communicate the entire truth of a particular story?
  2. Do you believe it is ethically moral to film segments of a documentary secretly, or without the people you’re interviewing knowing?  This was seen in Peter Klein’s documentary when the group of grad students purchased a few hard drives so they could look into the material themselves.  Is this good, ethical journalism?
  3. Does this documentary cause awareness within the western world?  Do you think people are realizing that although they feel as they are doing good to the world by recycling their electronics, third world and developing countries are put in danger? Some major electronic companies, including Best Buy, Apple, HP and Dell are trying to help with this issue. What do you think the rest of society can do to help prevent making these problems abroad worse?

Works Cited

Hundt, Reed E. “The Public’s Airwaves: What Does the Public Interest Require of Television

Broadcasters?” Duke Law Journal 45.6 (1996): 1089-1129.


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