Why cover development issues?
Development stories are unfolding across the globe every day. Despite recent advances however development journalism rarely makes it to the front pages of Western papers.
There are many reasons for this modest and inconsistent coverage of development issues:
- development stories are marginalised (most media outlets have political, economic and sports desks, but few have development desks.)
- high costs (fact-finding missions are key to a good story, but few outlets can afford this on a regular basis)
- time consuming (similar to an investigative feature, development reporting requires thorough research hampered by difficult access to information)
- dangerous (developing issues often involve gaining insight into finance flows and uncovering actions of fraudulent governments).
Coverage is often inconsistent, as complex issues require sensitive and skilled reporting. Without this, development reporting may lead to sensationalist stories, reinforcing prejudice or indifference towards stigmatised groups.
Time to involve media in poverty reduction
The media represent key tools for involving local communities and raising awareness at all levels. Media can -- and should be -- an open platform for debate, a voice for the voiceless, and a watchdog on decision-making.
Today the international community has acknowledged that development programmes and communication need to work in parallel if the MDGs are to be achieved on time.
Central European countries are new to the development field, having recently moved from beneficiaries to donors. Public support is key to maintaining this shift, but there remains a lack of understanding.
In a 2007 Eurobarometer survey, 80 per cent of Europeans said they had never heard of the UN MDGs. Of the lowest rates recorded, 9 were from the EU12. So good development reporting is doubly important in these countries compared to the EU 15 (where in some cases, the colonial past or many years of contribution to the official development assistance have increased public awareness about the needs of the developing world).
Young journalists from EU12 are now entering the system as the most important link between governments, audiences and the developing world. Media are drivers of growth and progress, representing a powerful instrument of democratic transformation.
Systematic media engagement is key to raising awareness about sustainable development by reporting accurate information and ensuring accountability.
What’s your perspective?
Journalists are known as ‘the fourth estate’ in the Western world for the influence and power they wield. But in developing countries, journalists face many difficulties.
Reporting on poverty takes a different perspective when carried out by a journalist from a developing country. Local journalists have few chances to report independently, and their profession is neither well paid nor respected. For a journalist from a developing country, reporting on poverty often requires a strong sense of dignity and duty.
Ezekiel Makunike, a Zambian journalist and teacher, speaks about the stereotypes repeated by Western media. His research in the late 1960’s showed that stories on Africa were routinely ignored because of a presumed lack of reader interest or because they were negatively portrayed.
“It must conform to the traditional stereotypes in its spotlight on the grotesque and sensationalist events. It must show misery, corruption, mismanagement, starvation, primitive surroundings…” he says about stories on Africa, viewed with negative eyes by foreign correspondents.
Makunike says that “in Somalia and elsewhere, news reports show white people feeding black people. You can never see Africans helping themselves”.
“We hear about famines and coups, but not the rejuvenation of its cities and the cultural vitality of its village life...about oppression and massacres, but not education, economic self-help and political development... about poaching and habitat destruction, but not ongoing active efforts at conservation, reforestation and environmental awareness.”
Makunike explains that foreign journalists often don’t know the languages and don’t understand the cultures of the countries they are covering and hardly ever appreciate the subtleties of local history and interactions that take years to learn. “They are neither accustomed or equipped to observe, understand or explain developmental situations that may change slowly over time”, says Makunike.
“Western media reporting on Africahas unfortunately reinforced a pattern of ignorance and distortion that has not changed with the changing political systems and in the case of this news blackout, it is still very much a dark continent.”
Gbemisola Olujobi, a Pulitzer Fellow, uncovers disaster pornography, or Western media’s habit of ‘blacking out’ Africa. She regrets that instead of educating and enlightening by reporting balanced and accurate information, Western media portrays Africa as backward. Olujobi notes:
“the way Africa is covered in the international media is not only charged with a partisan view but also responsible, to no small measure, for the perpetuation of prejudices that exacerbate Africa's problems”. This can come with high costs since “although the media coverage Africa receives is not the principal cause of the problems Africa faces, it provides the superstructure within which Africa is perceived and foreign policies on Africa are prescribed”.
Tetsuji Ida, a journalist from Japan, agrees that reports of foreign journalists on development issues still suffer too often from stereotypes and of the need for more sophisticated reporting.
“Sadly, stories on development issues are not in our mainstream daily reporting at Kyodo News or in other news media here in Japan. Kyodo News is one of the largest wire services in Asia, and yet we filed only 15 stories on the Millennium Development Goals in 2006; 6 of them were mine. I’m always wondering why this should be the case”, Ida asks.
Mustafa Kamal Majumder from Bangladesh speaks of how “the media cannot often afford specialisation, except on things such as politics, sport, economics and business, and crime. Poverty is not seen as a beat in itself”.
Along these lines,Pakistan’sFahd Husain says that “people have become de-sensitised, and that includes journalists”.
George Gitau, a journalist from Kenya, tells of the importance of media for empowering the local community:
“The media has tended to give the microphone to the politicians, the company chief executives and to the NGOs. But it has not done enough to take the microphone to the slum areas so the people can tell us how they are coping with poverty.”
Fahd Husain, a journalist from Pakistan, is reflecting on the lack of depth when reporting poverty.
“Statement-based journalism has stunted the development of journalists, who have too often taken the value of the information for granted. Lacking has been an approach in which journalists go out, meet people, hunt information down, analyse it and then write their stories”.
Ben Jones, a lecturer in the school of development studies at the University of East Anglia, is disappointed about how journalists reduce development to a story of ‘success’ or ‘failure’: “I seriously doubt whether journalists are interested in understanding how societies develop and change. We are too quick to champion causes and too easily disappointed.”
G. Pascal Zachary, an American journalist, author and teacher, who edits a blogon Africa, divides Western media approaches to the development story in two categories: journalists who tend to portray sympathy for the ‘losers’ and ‘fear’ over increased competition over resources from the ‘winners’. According to him, the first category often “presumes the necessity of intervention by rich countries in the affairs of poor ones” and rarely displays self-righteousness. On the other hand, in the second category the media focuses on depicting practices that allow poor countries to develop economically at the expense of the West; this “fear mongering by Western journalists sometimes provokes a backlash among journalists in developing countries who are justifiably proud of their countries’ economic achievements”. He notes how “only a rare Western journalist would recognize the social role played by child labor, though for reporters in the developing world such nuances are undeniable”.
“Those of us who love Africa almost never recognize it in the press or the movies. The racist stereotypes of Africans are so deeply ingrained in the guilt-driven worldview of Western elites that it is almost impossible to get to the truth.”
Rod Chavisalready in 1998 warned of the power of Western media: “With the stroke of a journalist's pen, the African, her continent, and her descendants are pejoratively reduced to nothing”. His implicit advice was to redirect the great deal of media resources and energy that are painting the African continent in a negative light towards more responsible reporting.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, asks the media to tell the whole story when reporting on Africa.
“I urge you to play your role, not merely as watchdogs and whistle-blowers, but as advocates and educators in our joint venture to make Africa ... a better place” … “One of the reasons why Africa has not been able to attract enough foreign direct investment, which we need for our development, is the constant negative reporting”.
On the other hand, the roll out of a three-year project by The Guardian and Observer newspapers to support development work carried out by the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) and Farm-Africain Katine, a rural sub-county of north-east Uganda, is a positive example of how Western-African co-operation and joint efforts of balanced media coverage can bring development issues to a new level of awareness.
Richard M. Kavuma, CNN 2007 Multichoice African Journalist, employed to spend two weeks every month in Uganda and report on the Katine project for the Guardian, speaks of the importance of journalism to act as voice for the voiceless. Kavuma says his focus on people-led reporting has become something of a novelty and has attracted a great deal of interest.
“The tone is changing and becoming more people-centered (in the Ugandan media)… I can’t claim the credit, but I am part of a new movement, which is putting people at the centre of development reporting… In Uganda high politics is seen as selling papers. The issue for the media is to try and spot the high politics in the development issues and writing stories as an issue of not numbers but of people”, Kuvuma highlights.
Kuvuma’s insight into reporting development allows him to monitor the progress and he sayshe is seeing more reports on development; but he hopes the reporting can become more systematic to allow the issues to be put into context. The benefits of this would be twofold: the articles would focus on the people, who would make the coverage more engaging, and it would reduce the gap between development issues and high politics. He adds:
“If we capture the imagination of the audience and highlight the responsibility – or lack of it – of the politicians, then we will be on the right track.”
John Kamau, a journalist from Kenya, thinks that journalists should ‘localise’ stories by giving them a human face:
“We have to learn that poverty is real. It is not about statistics. It is about people, living, walking and surviving. It is these people we have to report about… telling about what is happening in a world they do not know.”
Media challenges in developing countries
While development issues are simply not popular in Western media, journalists in developing regions face different obstacles, such as lack of training and resources.
Media outlets in the developing world share the same challenges as the countries themselves. Journalists are rarely dedicated to covering poverty reduction, so there is little continuity and growth among reporters covering development and not enough skills and training to know how best to report on development.
Nonetheless, local journalists report from the insider’s perspective so are better aware of regional and ideological issues. At the same time, they may find it harder to report objectively.
G. Pascal Zachary explains that
“journalists in developing countries face a variety of obstacles that complicate their efforts to comprehend and explain the development story from a global perspective. Some of these obstacles are shared with their Western counterparts, while others are distinctive, arising from the relatively low pay, social status, and education of many journalists.”
Reporters in the developing world are often polarised on development policies and actions. This is due in no small measure to political pressures that limit media coverage on poverty reduction as well as the capacity to perform in the public’s best interest. In the developing world, access to information is in many cases a serious problem. Self-censorship and fear of being critical of the government are also widespread among journalists and editors in the still young and under-resourced media industry of the developed countries.
Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi, a journalist from Uganda, declares that it is not uncommon for government or politicians to censor coverage of stories that could show them in a bad light or threaten their particular interests, and that they see the media as a means to spread their own propaganda.
Mutegi Njaufrom Kenya notes:
“confrontational politics seems to be the driving force in the Kenyan mass media. And in the rush to maximise profits, media houses have fallen in the trap of hiring half-baked journalists and correspondents, which adversely affects the quality of media content”.
Better training and support for local journalists is vital for improving coverage on development. But that’s only half the battle. The problem is also one of attitudes and priorities.
Too often poverty is seen as a fact of life and not newsworthy. New approaches are therefore essential to give new and constructive angles on development and bring it to the news.