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Developing a New Type of Journalism

Media & Development: Issues and Challenges in the Pacific Islands, edited by Shailendra Singh & Biman Prasad.
Published by the Fiji Institute of Applied Studies and AUT’s Pacific Media Centre, 2008. Reviewed by JEREMY ROSE

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My guess is there would be only a handful of working journalists in New Zealand who are aware that ‘development journalism’ is a genre in its own right. And until I read Media & Development, I wasn’t among them.

As David Robie points out in the book’s second chapter the genre peaked in the 1970s – ancient history for the majority of working journalists – and was a response by journalists in the Third World to what they saw as the negative portrayal of their home countries by international news agencies, such as Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

As I write this review, the front pages of both the Dominion Post and New Zealand Herald feature dramatic stories of Hurricane Gustav and the ‘possibility’ it will wreak havoc on New Orleans.

That it has already killed at least 60 people in Haiti is worth barely a sentence.

Equally, the floods that have killed hundreds and made millions homeless in the Indian state of Bihar in recent days don’t rate a mention on the international pages of either paper.

So if today’s papers are any indication it’s not so much a problem of negative coverage of the Developing World but one of near invisibility. Or perhaps they are one and the same thing. The Third World is a place where disasters happen; so disasters in the Third World are only news if they are of a truly horrific scale.

Yet as a number of contributors to Media & Development make clear, development journalism didn’t simply set out to create some sort of equality of coverage, it sought to fundamentally change the way journalists in developing countries practised the craft of journalism. In David Robie’s words:

Development journalism in a nutshell is about going beyond the ‘who, what, when, where’ of basic inverted pyramid journalism, it is usually more concerned with the ‘how, why” and ‘what now’ question addressed by journalists. Some simply describe it as ‘good journalism’. (p. 12)

But, as Kalinga Seneviratne points out in his fascinating chapter on the history of the genre, an ambitious attempt by the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1970s to set up the Non-Aligned News Pool – as an alternative to the Western news agencies – ended up discrediting the very term development journalism (p. 231). The Non-Aligned News Pool, Seneviratne, says, ‘soon degenerated into an exchange of government press releases.’ (A cynic might say it was simply ahead of its time in practising what Nick Davis has since termed churnalism in his book Flat Earth News).

Yet despite the term being captured and subverted by Third World bureaucrats, journalists in developing countries continued to try and create a new style of journalism that would, in Seneviratne’s words, be ‘the South’s answer to negative Western coverage’.

‘Un-Western’ journalism, he says, is not about mindlessly accentuating the positive. It aims to reveal both the successes and the failures, the grim, the unjust and the kind hearted and brave of everyday life.

Seneviratne, a former Inter Press Service correspondent, provides some examples of the different approaches taken by Western news agency and journalists working for IPS – an agency originally set up by Latin American journalists unhappy with the portrayal of their homelands by Western news agencies.

The examples are interesting – and the book would have benefited if other contributors had followed his lead and included more examples from the media – but often the difference seems to be more one of a journalist putting in the hard yards versus a journalist repackaging a grab-bag of clichés than ‘Western’ vs ‘Un-Western’ journalism.

Media & Development is an ambitious book that aims to do far more than simply explore the concept of development journalism.

Its primary focus is the Pacific and a wide range of journalists, scholars, educators and other experts contribute chapters on everything from gender and poverty to reporting the economy and environmental journalism.

As with any book with multiple contributors the quality is uneven. And some of the authors seem to have quite different audiences in mind. There are chapters, like Julie Middleton’s on gender, which provide useful tips and how-to guides which are clearly aimed at journalists and journalism students, and others that drown the reader in jargon which seem unlikely to be read by anyone other than those on an academic payroll.

Some chapters, like Jaap Jasperse’s on the environment, would not be out of place in a journalism text book; with solid background on environmental issues, and suggestions on how to cover the environment beat.

Others, like Shaista Shameem’s chapter entitled ‘Human rights, development and freedom of information: media responsibility’, are too ambitious and leave readers with more questions than answers. Shameem attempts to sum up the history of human rights and developing and the role of the media in promoting, protecting and interpreting those concepts in 10 pages.

This results in some sweeping generalisations and bold assertions: ‘The best journalists are those who do not have a university education but have read widely…’ (p. 145).

While, I agree that some of the world’s best journalists do not have a university education it’s a big leap to turn that into some sort of universal rule. She writes:

Journalists cannot pretend to be objective. They can, however, exhibit subjectivities in reporting. The role of the journalist is to scrupulously provide all sides of the story to allow people to make up their own minds about what to do with the information they have been given… It is the duty of journalists to give the public every [my emphasis] single perspective with respect to a story. (p. 145)

The fact is many journalists truly believe they are objective. The debate over whether objectivity is possible is an important one but is too nuanced to deal with so lightly. And the suggestion that every single perspective be canvassed in a complex story seems a virtual impossibility.

All of that said, Shameem raises important questions and her chapter is a good starting point for a debate on the reporting of human rights, development in the Pacific.

Media & Development falls somewhere between being an academic overview of journalism in the Pacific and a journalism text and ends up not quite satisfying either criteria.

But the who’s who of Pacific academics, journalists and civil society activists who make up the contributors list do provide plenty of stimulating material for anyone with an interest in development and the media in the Pacific.

LINKS

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Inter Press Service