As issues facing the developing world grow ever more complex and difficult, the task of good journalism should be to throw light on them
When Jamaican journalist Andrea Downer spotted a little boy washing her car windscreen at the traffic lights in Kingston, she found he belonged to a family network of beggars. It led to extensive investigations into children’s homes in the capital and ultimately an award for journalism that influences policy.
“I wanted to do something to help people. It made me feel like I was doing more than filling space in the paper,” she says.
Another sort of journalism runs as follows: reporters from the developed world take the first plane to cover an earthquake in Kashmir, a drought in Niger, or a hurricane in the Caribbean, looking at the disaster and helpless misery that results.
So where in the overlap between these two styles of reporting comes development journalism? Is it more than investigative journalism in a poor country?
Liz Ford is editor of the Katine website, the site for the Guardian’s Ugandan development project, which has now been running for two years. Ford considers that development journalism means getting behind the cliches of starving children and getting people to tell their own stories: “We are looking at big policies affecting developing countries and looking at how this relates on the ground to those who expect to be benefiting.” So the Ugandan government may have a poverty-reduction strategy in place – but what does that actually mean for the people living in Katine?
The Katine site covers these issues in all their complexity – looking at topics such as food security, traditional birth attendants, the role of the Chinese in Africa, or how local solutions are needed to help fight poverty. There are interactive elements, picture galleries, and information to download for schools.
Jan Voordouw is executive director of Panos Caribbean, part of the Panos Network that works with journalists in the developing world. Its slogan is: “Real people, real voices”. To Voordouw, development journalism means “Community journalism to achieve larger objectives – social justice, improving health, education, bringing people together.”
This implies extensive research rather than quick-fire reportage. But with the exception of the Katine site, which is almost certainly unique in being based around a development project, to what extent is this still possible in today’s media environment?
It is not blowing our own trumpet too much to say that, unlike much of the British press, Guardian News and Media – including the Guardian, the Observer, the website and especially the global publication Guardian Weekly – retains a commitment to various sorts of international journalism which other publications do not.
According to Elisabeth Ribbans, managing editor of the Guardian: “Over the past 10 years, the Guardian has moved from being a national to a truly international news organisation with a global audience and, although economic conditions are very tough for all news organisations, we remain committed to staying out in the world and reporting it as much as we possibly can. I think we’ve seen other news organisations retreat from the international field and we’ve been determined as much as resources allow not to do that.”
However, she considers that development journalism is more complex and labour-intensive than it might appear.
“The field of international development at first glance makes the reporter’s job appear quite easy. Distant locations or extremes of climate, extraordinary circumstances and often remarkable people seem ready-made for compelling copy.”
So that’s the aspect that encompasses good storytelling, something that the best development journalism must have. But there is, of course, more.
“A good journalist must not only describe, but delve, debunk and decode. International development is complex, slow, non-prescriptive and uncertain. It requires the reporter to appreciate and explore the interplay of diverse realms such as health, education, environment, governance, local and national economics, and culture,” says Ribbans.
Looked at like that, development journalism is definitely under threat. Uncovering the political, social and economic aspects of development in a particular country may require extensive research. This is a time of great change and financial stress across all media organisations, and development journalism is necessarily expensive. It has to fight to take its place with all sorts of quicker, cheaper, more populist journalism. There is the additional problem that readers, viewers and listeners in developed countries are perceived as not being particularly interested – unless there is a large-scale catastrophe involved.
What foreign reporting has often meant is disaster journalism – people being “parachuted in”, reporting, leaving, and possibly returning to do a follow-up piece – something a BBC correspondent quoted in Glenda Cooper’s 2007 Guardian Lecture at Nuffield College, Oxford, called: “Oh my god dying babies journalism”. It has meant a quick search for the most tragic story, the most dramatic images, shown without context, scant explanation of why the disaster happened, and with no background information on how that country or community became so troubled in the first place.
“I think most foreign correspondents think from their own environment, their own society, what is news in their context,” Voordouw claims. “That tends to be politics and disasters, big events. What we don’t hear much about, and what is harder to place, is the slower type of development.”
But at the same time as foreign reporting is being cut, the inter-related disciplines of journalism and development are attracting increasing attention from academia. For instance, the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, based at Columbia university in New York, produces background information on development issues for journalists. There is also Polis, a journalism and society thinktank attached to departments at both the London School of Economics and the London College of Communication, which hosts talks and publishes research papers, covering development as well as specifically UK-based issues.
Journalism courses in some developing-world universities run courses in international development. And there is much written about a connected topic: the use of communication to promote development itself – such as HIV prevention leaflets, theatre for youth empowerment, or websites produced by NGOs to tell the world about their projects and beneficiaries.
There are several things that development journalism is not, or should not be. One is an entirely uncritical publicity vehicle for any organisation or institution. According to Ribbans: “A reporter’s job is to keep an open mind and question what they see and hear, whether that’s the work of governments, private enterprise, NGOs or individuals.”
Another thing that development journalism is not, is making people into victims by treating them without dignity or sensationalising their lives. This usually comes through perceiving them as less important, intelligent or significant than someone in the developed world, lacking insight into their situation or any ability to improve it. Good development journalism asks questions – of ordinary people, not just of officials. It considers reader, writer and written-about to be equal in their humanity. It doesn’t patronise but asks the reader to put themselves in the place of people whose lives seem very different from theirs.
The role of the journalist
Development journalism generally attracts progressive, committed people, who want to effect positive change. There is no shortage of applicants: the hundreds of aspiring and professional journalists who expended considerable energy in researching and writing their entries for this competition are a case in point. Many had travelled in the developing world and wanted to share the stories they found there.
Some journalists who live and work in the developing world themselves also want to write on development – often more than is possible within their normal work. In one of her reporting jobs, Andrea Downer – who was employed in a newsroom, but not as a health journalist – specialised in HIV/Aids issues in addition to her other roles. “Reporters are afraid to work on such issues as they don’t want to be branded. ‘Why are you doing this, you must have Aids?’ There was resistance to what I was doing.”
Richard Kavuma, who spends two weeks a month reporting on the Katine project for the website, is an award-winning Ugandan journalist. While his seniority on The [Ugandan] Observer means he often writes on the high-level internal politics, he specialises in writing about issues surrounding the Millennium Development Goals. “That is my landmark work,” he says.
Sir Nick Young, CEO of the British Red Cross, believes that journalists can really help the process of development. “We are seeing journalists not just as passive reporters but also people who can feel passionately. They must be objective but it’s vital that their passion is allowed to come out. Articles also show how writers can see human dilemmas and allow their own experience to flavour their features.”
And Andrew Whitty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, considers that journalists have a considerable role to play. “Their work serves as a powerful and desperately needed advocate for the people of the developing world,” he says.
This is something that Kavuma has found, and it is very different from the objectivity into which he was trained. He believes that: “If you are doing an article on women of Katine who can’t access maternal care, you are tempted to be a spokesperson for them. You find it is impossible not to be biased in favour of disadvantaged.”
Journalism can also have an important role in development, encouraging the public to see that their money is necessary, that it is being well spent, but that it will not solve difficult issues overnight.
According to Douglas Alexander, secretary of state at the Department for International Development: “It remains critical that the British public are not just informed about the terrible levels of poverty in other countries but are also sufficiently moved to want to do something about it, particularly in a time of economic difficulty. Good development journalism goes a long way to achieving this.”
That’s something that continues to inspire many of us, including the journalists whose features appear in this supplement.
As Downer, who now works as a development journalist with Panos Caribbean, says: “Development journalism gives soul to media, it gives it a human face.”
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