How to report on development issues?
This section aims to help young journalists to produce story ideas, while thinking more broadly and responsibly on development issues.
Join the development story (define your goals / know the actors / plan)
Development is a cross-cutting theme. To make your story more powerful, study the various social and historical aspects of the local community, as well as the global interactions and implications. Before starting your article:
Clearly identify your storyline and objectives. Make a structure and plan your actions
What is your main reason for writing the story? What do you hope to achieve as a result?
- Ask yourself why a certain issue occurs and explore it in depth
- Identify the actors and possible problems
Who do you need to contact for your story? Do you have a strategy to win local support? Do you expect any hostility? Who is your target audience?
- Anticipate questions that may be raised through your storyline; ask yourself where you can find accurate and reliable information
Be curious, persistent, but also human. Think in advance how to react if accused of insulting someone’s country.
- Prioritise your actions based on your goals
Plan events and timing step by step.
- Try to foresee possible reactions to your story
Will there be a backlash from the actors involved? Will it raise awareness? Can it foster constructive debate?
- Prepare defensive points in advance, in case of misunderstandings -- or worse -- misrepresentations
- Explain how development impacts this country
This will anchor your story, giving it more immediacy. Your audience will understand the specific goals and the need achieve the UN MDGs.
Do your research (fact-finding missions)
Prepare for a long-term process of planning, information gathering and analysis based on various resources
Follow development issues regularly; stay up-to-date on news and events
Make a list of NGOs, international bodies, journalists and bloggers from the region; these may help you gain access to essential data.
- Learn as much as possible about the subject you are reporting
Development stories are based on complex and sensitive issues. You need to know the background on all levels (local, regional, international; social, political, economic, etc.).
- Double-check your information
In many developing regions, people may be afraid to speak the truth. Inaccurate information can damage the reputation of the actors involved; it may also reduce your credibility.
- Travel and report from the field whenever possible
This will make your story more original, dynamic and credible. It will improve your chances when pitching to other media outlets.
- Investigate the issue in depth
Check the background on all levels; track relevant inter-connections.
- Assess the cultural diversity and socioeconomic status of your target group(s)
This will help you to find the best angles on your story once you’re in the field.
- Be aware of legal, medical or ethical issues that may affect your research
Be conscious that local people and media may have different views from you. Local laws could limit your travel, safety and access to information, so be prepared.
- Prepare key messages in advance and pre-test them during field interviews
- Work proactively but be flexible about changing your storyline
- Be sensitive to local customs, including speech and dress
You will be less likely to spark conflict and better placed to gain the trust of local sources.
- Familiarise yourself with terminology; avoid using terms or concepts inaccurately
- Identify how situations you report on can be improved
Don’t just focus on the negative aspects; look for alternative ‘positive’ angles without distorting the story.
- Teamwork provides more ‘rounded’ content
Partnerships give voice to different outlooks and expertise. This should lead to stronger content.
Look for the story within the story (content)
Remember that development issues are cross-cutting themes, requiring a deep understanding of various factors
Be aware of historical, regional and religious aspects. These help you to avoid stereotypes and over-simplifications. Include some background, so that the audience understands the story’s relevance.
- Aim to generate interest in development and the developing world
Development issues are not mainstream; try to find new angles to hook your reader.
- Find the human angle: reel your audience in
Show that you are giving voice to people often denied it (eg for political or economic reasons).
- Give the local people a strong presence in your story
Include the individual and family stories, which people can relate to. This will hook your readers more than dry statistics.
- Speak to women and children; don’t just focus on the men
- Avoid portraying the poor as the ‘other’, living a separate existence to the rest of ‘us’
Avoid sensationalism; don’t create or reinforce dividing lines based on race, religion, gender or social status.
- Put short-term events into perspective
Report on the causes and implications.
- Break down complex subjects into smaller parts
Present complicated information in layers, increasing gradually in complexity.
- Use statistics with care
Don’t overload your audience with figures but do include comparisons if they clarify the story.
- Use new terms only if it is important for the target audience to know and retain them
Explain all new terminology; beware about using technical words that have different meanings from their common usage.
- Be sensitive to local customs; avoid ‘fatalistic’ reporting
- Cite sources for your story, unless this endangers them or where information was given off-the-record
- Complement technical data with personal narratives
- Avoid taking sides; don’t be influenced by third parties
Stay independent from special interests.
Keep safe (ethical, legal and security issues)
- Remember that every developing country has its particular challenges and dangers
Contact development organisations that know the region; seek their professional advice on legal, ethical and medical issues.
- Find a sophisticated way to report on sensitive topics; show cultural awareness and do not alienate people
- Don’t stigmatise individuals or groups; showing prejudice will harm your credibility as a journalist
- Prepare to encounter different attitudes
In developing countries the role of religion, women’s rights, homosexuality, etc. are often treated differently from in the West.
- Beware that political conflicts, local customs and vested interests could put you in danger (investigate the risks beforehand)
Follow-up and monitoring
Development journalism is not a one-time story. Therefore it’s important to:
Do follow-up coverage on your initial stories
This helps you maintain an extensive network of sources, and gives you a real chance to influence public opinion and do contribute to change. Continuity will give your stories power.
- Give steady coverage
Do not ‘parachute in’ just when tragedies occur; your reporting should be continuous.
Mistakes to be avoided
Development issues are rarely isolated. So remember:
Don’t take stereotypes as the truth
Don’t reinforce outdated prejudices. Report objectively and independently, taking note of the cultural, religious, socio-economic and political aspects of the region.
- Avoid arrogant reporting
People in developing countries are entitled to find their own solutions to development problems. A story where the North savesthe South is not only misleading but can also spark anger. Avoid presenting developing countries as primitive
- Refrain from sensationalist coverage
Avoid exaggerations, such as portraying the local population as helpless. Aim for balanced coverage.
- Don’t be co-opted by authorities, donors or other parties with an interest in presenting a particular angle
Report accurately and truthfully. Portray a faithful picture of the situation on the ground.
- Fight censorship
- Don’t expect to make a lot of money from development journalism
There are many positive aspects to this work, especially moral rewards. Development journalism should be a long-term adventure for a good, even noble, cause.