Going beyond “Poor Journalism” that ignores the poor

Sri Lankan Media Fellows on Poverty and Development with their mentors and CEPA coordinators at orientation workshop in Colombo, 24 Sep 2016

Sri Lankan Media Fellows on Poverty and Development with their mentors and CEPA coordinators at orientation workshop in Colombo, 24 Sep 2016

“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).

The Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), a non-profit think tank has launched the Media Fellowship Programme on Poverty and Development to inspire and support better media coverage of these issues. The programme is co-funded by UNESCO and CEPA.

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.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development at CEPA, 24 Sep 2016

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development at CEPA, 24 Sep 2016

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.

Here is my PPT:

More photos from the orientation workshop:

 

 

Details of CEPA Media Fellowship Programme on Poverty and Development

List of 20 Media Fellows on Poverty and Development

What would (Sri Lanka’s first press baron) D R Wijewardene do if he confronted today’s media realities?

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at D R Wijewardene memorial event on 26 February 2016 - Photo by Sam de Silva

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at D R Wijewardene memorial event on 26 February 2016 – Photo by Sam de Silva

This week, I was asked by Sri Lanka’s oldest newspaper publishing house — Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, or Lake House — to chair a panel discussion on ‘Survival and Evolution of Newspapers in the Digital Age’.

The event marked the 130th birth anniversary of Lake House founder and Sri Lanka’s first press baron, D R Wijewardene (1886 – 1950). It was held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute in Colombo.

My panel comprised: communications scholar and former telecom regulator Prof Rohan Samarajiva; senior journalist Hana Ibrahim; Sri Lanka Press Institute’s CEO Kumar Lopez, and political scientist Sumith Chaaminda of Verite Research.

We had a lively discussion exploring the challenges faced by print publishers everywhere, and what solutions are relevant, viable and affordable for a majority of small scale publishers without deep pockets.

Here is an excerpt from my opening remarks (full text to be published soon as an op-ed article):

In the absence of independently audited circulation figures, we cannot be certain how well – or poorly – our newspapers are selling today. But indications are not promising. I have been involved in a state of the media study for the past year (due to be released in May 2016), and there is evidence that market survival is a big struggle for many smaller publishers.

More and more Lankan newspapers are being kept alive not to make any profit, but for influence peddling and political purposes. And in at least one case, the co-operatively owned Ravaya, reader donations were actively solicited recently to keep the paper alive.

Worldwide, print journalism’s established business models are crumbling, with decades-old publications closing down or going entirely online (The Independent newspaper in the UK is the latest to do the latter). Advertisers usually follow where the eyeballs are moving.

So what would D R Wijewardene do if he confronted today’s realities of gradually declining print advertising share and readers migrating to online media consumption? How might he respond by going back to his founding goals of political action and social change through the 3 Ps – the Press, Parliament and Platform – as important instruments of political action?

My guess is that he would invest in radio and/or television, with a strong digital integration. He might even find a viable income stream from digital and online publishing without locking up public interest content behind pay-walls.

We can only speculate, of course. Perhaps the more pertinent question to ask is: where are the budding D R Wijewardenes of the 21st Century? What are their start-ups and how are their dreams unfolding? Are they trying to balance reasonable profits with public interest journalism?

In my view, the biggest decider of success or failure – today, as it was a century ago – is not the medium, but the message. To put it more bluntly, it’s credibility, stupid!

Prof Rohan Samarajiva speaks at D R Wijewardene memorial event, 26 Feb 2016

Prof Rohan Samarajiva speaks at D R Wijewardene memorial event, 26 Feb 2016