Africa, Global Communication, public diplomacy, Social Media

Fear and Loathing in Development Journalism

Three items on development journalism in Africa came across my radar screen yesterday, and it was fascinating to read such a diversity of views.  It seems that harnessing media in the service of development has been used, at times, as a strategy to repress free speech and democracy, and yet the concept of development journalism is experiencing a revival in the digital age.

What do “Take Five” readers think about these issues?  What are the contemporary risks and benefits of promoting development journalism?  Shared below are the three views that, taken together, coalesced into this unexpected debate on my desk top.  I invite you to continue the discussion here.

“Three Knight Fellows to Launch Continent-Wide Media Projects” (September 2011) announces a dynamic new initiative to be based in Nairobi, Kenya, where three media experts will train African journalists in media management, the environment, and rural development.  The project webpage explains that the media training on rural development will be conducted by Knight International Fellow Joseph Warungu, the very distinguished former head of BBC’s African News and Current Affairs department, who will “work with South Africa’s Rhodes University to build a pan-African network of journalists with the skills to cover agriculture, health, small business and other development issues.”  This particular fellowship is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Well, so far, so good.  I’ve spent enough time reading newspapers in developing countries to know that coverage is often dominated by purely political developments, while economic news gets short shrift.  Business news taken largely from corporate press releases and launches makes it into the paper, but not the in-depth, grassroots economic reporting that helps readers understand, for example, the local effect of global fluctuations in commodity prices, or how price subsidies can affect rural-urban migration, or how some conflicts are sustained by localized economic opportunities for the few, or how some types of information are as valuable and bankable as a durable good. Therefore, training that helps reporters and editors “follow the money” has to be a good thing, because readers want very much to understand both the development efforts and the wider economic forces that affect their most basic existence.

However, Terje S. Skjerdal’s “Development journalism revived: the case of Ethiopia” (2011) introduces some different ideas.  The author explains that “development journalism has attracted considerable hostility over the years.  … The practice has been blamed for promoting political agendas instead of people’s interests.  The strong dependency on the state, especially in African versions of development journalism, has roused worries from press freedom organizations. … Local journalism paradigms such as Nkrumah’s revolutionary journalism [in Ghana] and Nyerere’s ujamaa Journalism [in Tanzania] were seamlessly interwoven with development-oriented journalism. This was made possible because development journalism in the African meaning of the term, in contrast to the Asian, meant close collaboration between the media and the authorities rather than critical reporting on development efforts. In effect, the state media and the government joined forces against the private media … [and] the critical and investigative role of the media was severely suppressed in the name of the ‘greater good.’”

Yet Skjerdal also explains that, despite this negative history, there has been a revival of interest in development journalism in recent years.  He cites as an example the framework of five principles synthesized by Fackson Banda (Communicatio: South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, Volume 33Issue 2, 2007) for “development journalism in a new era.”   These include seeing the audience as active citizens rather than passive consumers; listening (as journalists) to the public, and not just to official sources; promoting deliberation among people, and between the people and their leaders; and encouraging citizens to conceptualize and express their own development concerns.  In sum, the development journalist “must get readers to realize how serious the development problem is, to think about the problem, to open their eyes to possible solutions.”

The rest of Skjerdal’s piece focuses more specifically on the case of Ethiopia, and the results of a survey of Ethiopian journalists on the significance of a new Ethiopian media policy promoting development journalism.   Discouragingly, Skjerdal concludes that journalists in that country are finding it difficult to maintain their objective and outspoken stance in the face of a development journalism imperative to promote success stories in order to support national efforts.

But are there other ways to manage development journalism?  Ways in which the journalist’s core commitment to objectivity is enhanced rather than diminished by a focus on development?

Into this nuanced landscape of potential benefits and pitfalls comes a paper on “Developing undergraduate journalism curricula: Concerns and issues” presented at a 2009 South African conference by Monica Chibita, senior lecturer in journalism at Makere University in Uganda.  I read it with interest, having been privileged to work with Dr. Chibita on a multi-faceted radio journalism training project when I was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Kampala about a decade ago.

First Chibita notes the subjects that Makerere journalism students are traditionally expected to cover – media history, writing, editing, ethics, graphics, analytical thinking and research methods.

Then she asks, “for a journalist looking at practicing in an African context, though, what about understanding community problems and dynamics? What about applying their understanding of the workings of the media to poverty, maternal and infant mortality, HIV/AIDS, energy, environmental degradation, unemployment, governance etc?”  And, channelling Banda, “how about making sense of how people diagnose and seek solutions to these problems in their local context and what role the media can play in making this possible?”

And here Chibita introduces a new element, the digital revolution.   “It appears that there is a growing need [for such development-related skills.]  This is partly because communities now do have some access to a wide range of media. Technologies like the mobile phone, for instance, can be used to bridge the gap between rural people and previously inaccessible ‘mainstream’ media.”

In other words, says Chibita, since digital media brings real potential for mainstream media and government to “listen” to the public, for there to be two-way dialogue among citizens and leaders, and for citizens to be empowered to shape development issues themselves, then it is the obligation of at least some journalists to be professionally prepared to play a role in realizing that potential.

So should we be bullish or bearish on development journalism?   Should we embrace the positive vision expressed through the Knight International Fellowships and by Banda and Chibita, or are we persuaded by the more pessimistic view of Skjerdal?  In the examples above from Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, do country-specific differences matter, e.g. levels of Internet penetration that are respectively below 2%, about 12%, and above 25%?  Are we persuaded by objective criteria such as UNESCO’s ranking of Makerere’s journalism program as among the top 12 in Africa?   More broadly, do the risks of defining appropriate topics for journalists always outweigh the potential benefits — or should the development imperative sometimes trump market-based media decisions in the African marketplace of ideas?

Again, Take Five welcomes you to continue this debate.

Editor’s note:  On Sunday, Mohamed Keita published an NYTimes Op-Ed entitled “Africa’s Free Press Problem.” Mohamed hits upon similar themes – his post is well worth reading.

About Mary Jeffers

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. Government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.


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