The media and the story behind development


A time for development journalism

The United Nations Millennium Goals (MDGs), aimed at reducing poverty and hunger worldwide, are due for revision in 2015. In the process of examining the practical implications and feasibility of the goals, journalists remain of crucial importance. Through development journalism, they can perform their role as the Fourth Estate and hold governments accountable for delivering on their promises to meet the goals and lay bare the reality of development aid.

In times of shrinking newsrooms and slashed budgets for in-depth reporting, however, development journalism seems to be at risk. News outlets increasingly resort to ‘parachute journalism’: foreign correspondents are parachuted into an area with little background information about its political and cultural landscape. Thrusting journalists into an unfamiliar area can potentially be dangerous, because contextual issues are often ignored and journalists lack proper contacts.

Some say that journalism of this sort can provide a new angle to a story and pinpoint exactly what the target audience is interested in. But the reality is that background research and independent investigation are necessary for understanding complex, interconnected and on-going problems outside the Western world. In times of financial stress across media organisations, development journalism has been put in second place. 

What happens if you put development journalism back on the map?

By financially supporting innovative journalistic approaches to development, the European Journalism Centre, in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has encouraged reporters and newsrooms to break away from stereotypes and simplistic narratives, and focus on engaging in storytelling of underreported stories instead.

The grant programme has so far funded 28 ambitious projects undertaken in various countries, all covering at least one aspect of the Millennium Goals. As reports of the first round are currently being published across countries and media platforms, we have asked several of our grantees to share with the public why, in their opinion, development journalism is important and why the world needs to hear about these stories.

Stories that matter

Development journalism undoubtedly matters. As photographer Jürgen Schrader puts it, “People in more or less wealthy and industrialised countries must become aware of the ‘other’ world.” Yet, Lawrence Haddad, Director of the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, found that media narratives on development still centre on three prevailing ideas: too much money is spent on aid, aid does not make a lifelong change to people’s lives, and aid does nothing for the sending country.

Despite these narratives, the special 2012 Eurobarometer “Solidarity that spans the globe: Europeans and development aid”, shows that 85% of Europeans think it is important to help people in developing countries. The problem taxpayers have with development aid is that they are unsure of how their money is being spent. Half (50%) of respondents say they do not know where their country’s development aid goes; 44% even reply they do not know anything about their government’s aid expenditure.

Development journalism can help in giving the public a better understanding of the purposes of development. “The role of the journalist is to create awareness and show people where the money is going, without ignoring the human aspect of these issues,” says Reinier van Oorsouw, who investigated the effectiveness of Dutch aid in eight countries. Grantee Ruth Evans believes that “development journalism provides a human face behind big policy issues and trends. It shows how people on the ground are affected. This kind of reporting does not happen when you are parachuted into an area.”

Grantees Jeronimo Giorgi and Angelo Attanasio, who looked at how the (re)use of computers is improving the quality of life in Uruguay, Egypt and India, believe there is also a need for positive stories about developing countries and their strategies to solve problems. According to Gabriela Jacomella, it is important to realise that development is something you should focus on both in peaceful times and in times of crisis. “With our project in South Sudan we show people that, behind all these huge problems, you have individuals contributing to challenge the existing problems.”

New storytelling instead of old stereotypes

Yet, challenges for development journalism remain. “Getting publicity for what is going on in the developing world is difficult,” says Jeremy Laurance, former Health Editor of The Independent. “Interest in health in developing countries, for example, has definitely subsided in the West. When people think of Africa, they think of famine-stricken countries where poverty is rampant.” Grantee Nicolas Kayser-Bril notices a similar pattern and points out that many reporters and analysts still regard Africa as a single country. “Not being able to distinguish between Dakar and Harare leads to collective coverage that impedes the ability of a single country or region to go on its own path,” Kayser-Bril adds.

How to break away from these negative stereotypes and simplistic narratives? New types of storytelling such as data journalism, can bring new solutions to old problems. Jacopo Ottaviani explains: “We are currently experiencing a huge storm of data. These data can improve the quality of the debate on development, because it moves the axis of the discussion from opinion to fact. Data journalism gives you the weapons to respond to bad journalism: you can fact check and debunk myths. This is the future of development journalism and journalism as a whole.”

Daniele Grasso also acknowledges the importance of data journalism. “We were a bit afraid of stereotypes. We did not want to go to Kenya and come back with photos of poor children. Even though this is also a painful reality, we wanted to look at the causes of problems in Kenya. Using data, we could show how big the problem was.” Nicolas Kayser-Bril aims to achieve the same: “Our investigation allows for transparent journalism, which we hope prevents mistakes some journalists make, such as falling for sensationalism or reporting on outstanding examples and presenting them as exemplifying reality.”

However, in Ottaviani’s words, “It is not only about statistics, but also about stories. You have to give data an identity.” Splinter Knight, one of Project Syndicate’s team members who worked on the project ‘Visualizing Development Data’, highlights the importance of combining data with storytelling. “We combined trenchant commentaries from the world’s foremost academics, policy-makers, and thought leaders with visualisations that further explore the data that underlie the arguments made in the commentaries.”

Can we do with a little more transparency?

As EJC Director Wilfried Rütten stated in a press release, a well-informed public in the developed world can impact policies in the developing world in a positive way. Laurence Soustras, examining the causes of the growing instability of food prices in her project, points out that “critical writing could lead to a bigger push for transparency.” Emanuele Bompan, who mapped out how Italian development aid is spent, says: “My team and I opened up the debate about public funding. Especially in times of crisis, people ask themselves: ‘Why should we use public money for development projects?’ Development journalism can answer questions like these.”

Bompan continues: “There are a lot of professionals in war zones such as Lebanon, Syria and Sudan, but in other countries we lack muckrakers. Stories on economic developments and aid are absent in the news, while these issues need more reporting.” Mar Cabra, who looked with her team at aid spending of the Spanish government, hopes to see more detailed reports of such spending in the future. In Spain, the only big country in Europe that did not have a Freedom of Information Law until recently, her project was already seen as a major step forward. “Working with data is important to take out all possible bias from reports of the government,” Cabra says.

Laurence Soustras also believes that her project can make policy-makers aware of the responsibilities they have. But development journalism does not only encourage transparency of governments, but also of businesses. According to Soustras, big trading groups are already undergoing a transformation. As the public is demanding more information, businesses want to be more transparent. “They realise they are very important players in today’s economy and that they should provide more information about their practices.”

The future of development journalism

What does the future of development journalism look like? The grantees are optimistic, although they are aware development reporters can only operate under certain circumstances. Gabriela Jacomella mentions the dangerous situations for reporters in poor countries. “In times of crises, like in South Sudan at the moment, development journalism ends up being suspended in a vacuum. This does not mean that development issues are suddenly non-existent. It is simply extremely hard to continue with in-depth reporting on the ground during times like these. When crises happen, journalists tend to focus on the conflict only.”

But even more threatening to the future of development journalism seems to be the precarious financial situation of European media outlets. Whereas the Internet has provided great opportunities for grassroots information, investigative reporting has become more expensive, according to Emanuele Bompan. Jeremy Laurance agrees and points out the importance of outside funding, which has become fundamental now that newspapers are reducing costs.

One thing is clear: data will become an important feature of development journalism. “The problem of development stories is that they are so often couched in jargon by those involved in development work, that the ordinary reader does not understand what is going on. You have to go beyond human stories alone and get the data to back up your story,” says Ruth Evans. Jacopo Ottaviani also supports development reporting that includes both data and first-hand accounts, as going to the streets helps to discover what is hidden in the data sets.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from development journalism, is that development issues not only concern poor countries. “A lot of readers ask: ‘Why should we invest in development aid?’,” says Mar Cabra. “My team and I want people to show them that what happens in Morocco, for example, also affects Spain. This realisation is not obvious, and has little do with common sense, but it is my role as a journalist to explain this. Development journalism should be concerned with these issues, because, ultimately, development affects us all.”