“Hands up who is poor, speaks English – and looks good on TV!”
With that title, I opened my panel remarks to the 8th Annual Symposium on Poverty Research in Sri Lanka on the morning of 30 November 2007.
Sri Lanka’s Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) had invited me to speak during a session on ‘Taking it off the page: Alternative mediums of communication to influence change’. The theme of the overall symposium was ‘Communicating research and influencing change’.
Part of my talk was on challenges in using moving images to communicate development related research. The other part was on how most sections of the mainstream media covers stories of the poor — or those living at the bottom of the income pyramid.
I noted that as Asia’s billions strive for a better today and better tomorrow, there are millions of stories at the bottom of the pyramid. But most mainstream media manage to miss these stories due to their ignorance, or arrogance, or both.
But reporting from the bottom of the pyramid need not be all about doom, gloom and alarm. In fact, so much is happening there that a well informed story-teller won’t have much time to spend on negativity (while acknowledging a great deal of suffering that remains).
In my remarks, I emphasised that to discover these stories and tell them with empathy and accuracy, we as story-tellers need to recognise a few basic realities:
• The poor are not another species to be treated as if they were endangered! They are living and loving human beings as complex and nuanced as anyone in this room.
• Nor are the poor a ‘sub-human species’ with a simpler set of needs and aspirations. They have as many primary, secondary and tertiary needs – just like anyone else!
• When it comes to information, they have not only survival and practical information needs (which many development projects try to provide), but also what I call ‘information wants’ – cultural and social information – which many development projects completely ignore.
• The poor have opinions too — and are often more articulate and expressive when someone cares to listen and capture these.
So telling media stories from the Bottom of Pyramid needs the knowledge base, socio-cultural understanding and ethical framework in which to gather and process these stories. We at TVE Asia Pacific don’t claim to have got everything right, here are our basic rules of engagement:
• We treat the rich, middle class and poor alike – extending the same courtesy and respect (including obtaining personal clearances for interviews).
• We caption everyone on-screen by name and location, irrespective of their social and economic status.
• We film people – for interviews or generic footage – only with informed consent.
• Wherever possible, we take our the finished TV products back to where they were filmed and share with those who told us their stories. (We are not alone in this: I have written blog posts about Earthcare Films of India and the Brock Initiative of the UK who are also doing this.)
Our industry of broadcast TV is not always known for its class-less treatment of every human being with respect and dignity. In fact, the poor often become ‘Canon-fodder’ for camera crews looking for dramatic images of human suffering.
The globalised media continue to use stereotyped images of the global South – captured mostly by northern photographers and camera crews. As my friend Shahidul Alam, founder of Drik Picture Library in Bangladesh, says: “Invariably, films about the plight of people in developing countries show how desperate and helpless they are…. Wide angle black and white shots, grainy, high contrast images characterise the typical third world helpless victim.”
This explained my title: “Hands up who is poor, speaks English and looks good on TV!” It’s a caricature of how some camera crews go looking for that convenient sound-bite with some doom-and-gloom visuals to match.
But it’s not just the northern media who sensationalise and oversimplify life at the bottom of the pyramid in the South. Many of our own media outlets, rooted in the cities and obsessed with middle class life styles, are also good (or bad) in this game!
And the media are not alone. When development agencies and ‘pro-poor’ activists presume – in their middle class arrogance – that the poor only need survival or sustenance related information, the latter is immediately reduced to sub-human status.
Nov 2005 op ed: Communication rights and communication wrongs
Nov 2006 op ed: Ethical news gathering: Al Jazeera’s biggest challenge