“For me as an editor, there is a compelling case for engaging with poverty. Increasing education and literacy is related to increasing the size of my readership. Our main audiences are indeed drawn from the middle classes, business and policymakers. But these groups cannot live in isolation. The welfare of the many is in the interests of the people who read the Daily Star.”
So says Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh. I quoted him in my presentation to the orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development, held in Colombo on 24 September 2016.
Alas, many media gatekeepers in Sri Lanka and across South Asia don’t share Anam’s broad view. I can still remember talking to a Singaporean manager of one of Sri Lanka’s first private TV stations in the late 1990s. He was interested in international development related TV content, he told me, “but not depressing and miserable stuff about poverty – our viewers don’t want that!”
Most media, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have narrowly defined poverty negatively. Those media that occasionally allows some coverage of poverty mostly skim a few selected issues, doing fleeting reporting on obvious topics like street children, beggars or poverty reduction assistance from the government. The complexity of poverty and under-development is hardly investigated or captured in the media.
Even when an exceptional journalist ventures into exploring these issues in some depth and detail, their media products also often inadvertently contain society’s widespread stereotyping on poverty and inequality. For example:
Black and white images are used when colour is easily available (as if the poor live in B&W).
Focus is mostly or entirely on the rural poor (never mind many poor people now live in cities and towns).
Under this, 20 competitively selected journalists – drawn from print, broadcast and web media outlets in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages – are to be given a better understanding of the many dimensions of poverty.
These Media Fellows will have the opportunity to research and produce a story of their choice in depth and detail, but on the understanding that their media outlet will carry their story. Along the way, they will benefit from face-to-face interactions with senior journalists and development researchers, and also receive a grant to cover their field visit costs.
I am part of the five member expert panel guiding these Media Fellows. Others on the panel are senior journalist and political commentator Kusal Perera; Chief Editor of Daily Express newspaper Hana Ibrahim; Chief Editor of Echelon biz magazine Shamindra Kulamannage; and Consultant Editor of Sudar Oli newspaper, Arun Arokianathan.
At the orientation workshop, Shamindra Kulamannage and I both made presentations on media coverage of poverty. Mine was a broad-sweep exploration of the topic, with many examples and insights from having been in media and development spheres for over 25 years.
A top European Union official recently cautioned against the concept of ‘peace journalism‘, under which journalists actively promote peace as part of their coverage of conflicts. His views resonated much with my own reservations about this particular brand of journalism.
Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, made the remarks in a written contribution to the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, held in Bonn, Germany, from 3 to 5 June 2009. I wasn’t there in person, but have been reading up some of the presentations and media coverage of the event.
The Spanish physicist-turned-politician added: “We all want to promote peace, reconciliation and conflict resolution and we want the media to help us in this. The best way in which they can do this is to inform us. This is the journalist’s fundamental task.”
He then sounded a word of caution: “The reporter is there to report. We should be careful not to weigh down the media with additional responsibilities over and above their primary task of providing information. A healthy media environment is diverse and plural; it is there to explain but not take sides. The profession of journalism needs no justification and no sophisticated qualification.”
Solana also referred to the early notion of ‘development journalism’ that was promoted in the 1970s, which called upon journalists in the developing countries to always support their governments’ development efforts. Such uncritical cheer-leading, which resulted in many ‘sunshine stories’ that glossed over problems, eventually did a lot more harm than good: development journalists became mere propagandists for governments pursuing wrong development models that squandered natural resources and brought misery to millions.
In fact, after having been part of the media and communications profession for over two decades, I no longer like to box myself into any category. For some years during my first decade of working life, I proudly called myself an ‘environmental journalist’. I still cover environmental issues with the same interest and passion, but now question whether the growth of environmental journalism as a media specialisation has, inadvertently, ghettoised environmental issues within the editorial considerations of media organisations. I also feel that at one point we became too ‘green’ for our own good.
This is not to argue against journalists specialising in environment or other sectors such as health, gender, peace or human rights. As issues become more complicated, journalists require a great deal of background knowledge, sustained interest and context to do their job well. But it’s poor strategy to leave sustainable development issues entirely in the hands of ‘environmental journalists’. Or coverage of conflict to ‘peace journalists’.
At best, such specialist journalists can only weave part of the much-nuanced, multi-faceted tapestry of sustainable development. To grasp that bigger picture, and to communicate it well, we need the informed and active participation of the entire media industry -– from reporters, feature writers and producers to editors, managers and media owners.
What we lack – and urgently need – is plain good journalism that covers development, conflict and other issues as an integral part of human affairs. Noble intentions of saving the planet, or making world peace, sound good at beauty pageants. But these catch-all lines don’t give anyone the license to engage in shoddy journalism that lacks accuracy, balance and credibility – the core tenets of the profession. It applies equally to mainstream and citizen journalists.
So it’s time to take a few steps back, grasp the bigger picture ourselves, and then show it as is to our audiences. We need Reporters Without Labels.
The only label worth aspiring to is a good journalist. May their tribe increase!
I seem to be writing many obituaries and tributes these days. Following the several I wrote on Sir Arthur C Clarke and the blog post I did on Cambidian photojournalist Dith Pran, I want to share this tribute I wrote today on a senior Sri Lankan journalist who embarked on her final voyage this weekend.
Trail-blazer in issue-based journalism
Mallika Wanigasundara, who passed away on 4 April 2008 aged 81, was a talented and sensitive Sri Lankan journalist who went in search of causes and process that shape the everyday news headlines. In doing so, she blazed new trails in issue-based journalism, covering topics ranging from health and environment to children, women and social justice.
It was only last year that the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Press Institute presented her the Lifetime Achievement Gold Medal for Excellence in Journalism.
Mallika was associated with the Sri Lankan media in one capacity or another for over half a century. Starting her professional career in 1956 with the Sinhala evening daily Janatha, she later moved on to English language journalism at Lake House where she worked first in The Observer and then at Daily News. It was as Features Editor of this oldest English daily that she played a key role in practising and nurturing development journalism. She helped evolve the genre to new levels of professionalism, liberating it from the typecast of politically motivated, sometimes fabricated ‘sunshine’ stories that had been forced on the state-owned Lake House newspapers during the 1970s.
Mallika also helped put Sri Lanka on the world map of development journalism. Beginning in the early 1980s, she contributed Sri Lankan stories to Depthnews, published by the Press Foundation of Asia based in Manila, and to Panos Features, syndicated globally by the Panos Institute in London. In those pre-web days, these services – when printed in newspapers and magazines – were among the most dependable sources for ground level reporting from far corners of the world. (Alas, both services have since gone the way of the Dodo – not to mention Asiaweek, South and Gemini.)
Although I grew up in the 1980s reading her writing in Daily News, my own contacts with Mallika were few and far between. The first was indirect and happened in the late 1980s, when as an eager young reporter I started contributing to Panos Features, syndicated from London to several hundred newspapers around the world. Mallika remained the Panos Sri Lanka correspondent and I was merely a stringer. Donatus de Silva, then head of programmes at Panos London, somehow found a clear niche for both of us. At the time, Mallika and I exchanged occasional communications.
As a novice, I studied Mallika’s approach and style, and emulated them both. Hers was an easy, reader-friendly prose: it brought in both expert views and grassroots insights, but with none of the technicality or pomposity – and very little editorialising. Although she was fully supportive of the various social and environmental causes, she didn’t allow activist rhetoric to dominate her journalism. She also ventured beyond the predictable ‘green’ issues to cover many ‘brown’ issues. Two decades after the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development (1987) that thrust sustainable development into the global agenda, it’s precisely this kind of journalism that’s needed to make sense of our fast-moving, slowly-baking, topsy-turvy world.
Mallika continued to be an active freelancer after she retired from Lake House. She seemed more prolific in retirement – she continued to chronicle the rise of the environmental movement in Sri Lanka, which emerged from citizen campaigns to save the Sinharaja rain forest from state-sponsored logging and evolved through crises and protests in the 1980s and beyond.
In 1990, she was selected by the United Nations Environment Programme for the Global 500 award that recognised environmental achievements of individuals and organisations. She was the first Sri Lankan journalist to be thus honoured, and one of only four Sri Lankans to be inducted into this global roll of honour that eventually included over 600 persons or entities worldwide.
At the time, I was hosting a weekly TV quiz show on Rupavahini (national TV) and decided to set one of my questions on Mallika receiving the Global 500. I phoned her to offer my congratulations and asked for a photo that we may use on the TV show. She was happy to be the basis of a question, but declined giving a photo, saying: ‘I don’t look good in photos or on TV’.
It was characteristic of many accomplished journalists of her generation that they remained mostly in the background, shaping news coverage and analysis. Some even didn’t nurture a personal by-line, writing under pseudonyms or simply not signing their names on their work. What a contrast with the image-conscious, in-your-face radio and TV journalism of today, where even respected newspaper editors eagerly pursue parallel careers as talk show hosts or TV pundits.