Call it cinema verité, fly-on-the-wall documentary, or just plain old reality TV: programmes such as Big Brother, Survivor, The Apprentice and Tribe have been big business for television production companies for more than decade.
The obvious catch, however, is that 'reality' is a misnomer. More often than not, the programmes are far very from 'real', filmed in fake environments with fabricated story lines; the artifice then compounded by misleading editing. Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor, revealingly said, 'I tell good stories. It really is not reality TV. It really is unscripted drama'.
Most would-be contenders are presumably now aware of this. They must know that at times they will be emotionally exploited and ritually humiliated. They know that most audiences watch reality shows to feel the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I frisson of schadenfreude, on which just about every reality series is surely premised. It's uncomfortable and unpleasant. 'None of us wants to believe we actually like seeing others humiliated.
That's not part of our supposedly compassionate belief systems', says media expert Tom Alderman in the Huffington Post. 'Yet, our culture is shaped by the content of our media and our media is shaped by the content of our culture, so how do we account for this coarsening of our culture, this growth of Shame TV?'
The news that a series about an Amazonian tribe has been slammed as 'staged, false, fabricated and distorted' by experts on the tribe again raises serious concerns about the ethics of reality TV. 'Mark & Olly: Living with the Machigenga' was broadcast on the Travel Show in the US and on BBC last year. In the show, Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds lived in a Matsigenka Indian village for several months to show the 'reality' of life amongst the tribe.
Two experts on the tribe have now gone public with a string of highly damaging accusations, saying that many events presented as 'real' in the series must have been staged; that the programmes had presented a 'false and insulting' portrayal of the tribe as sex-obsessed, mean and savage, and that many of the Indian translations are fabricated. (see http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/7549)
That the series is probably a travesty of the Matsigenka's way of life is cheap and bad enough. Sadly this is all too common - TV now just doesn't seem interested in any attempt to portray tribal peoples' lives as they really are. It is a very different matter for a tribe in the Amazon to experience wholesale misrepresentation, as it is for a would-be 'apprentice' looking for a job, or a soap actress on skates.
Fabrication is inherently unethical, but for tribal peoples the consequences can be insidiously far-reaching. The reason is simple: the murders, dispossessions and long-term abuse of tribal peoples from the Amazon to the Arctic have always been - and still are - underpinned by racist thinking.
'All the years of calling the Indian a 'savage' has never made him one', said Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Sioux.
But as long as those who have a public voice promote such ideas, they will be believed. Irresponsible programmes such as 'Mark and Olly ...' serve only perpetuate stereotypical views. The distorted view of the Matsigenka's way of life is not just humiliating for the tribe; it's not just unethical piece of journalism - it's dangerous. If tribal peoples are portrayed as 'savage' or 'Stone Age', the public will believe this to be true. This can lead to the theft of tribal lands and resources by governments and corporations. Negative portrayals feed negative stereotypes which underpin systematic and gross violations of human rights, including genocide.