“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.
I have devoted another weekend column in Ravaya newspaper (in Sinhala) to celebrate the memory of the illustrious Lankan journalist, editor and development communicator, Tarzie Vitachi (1921 – 1993). This time, I talk about his time at the United Nations, first as communication chief at UNFPA, and then as Deputy Executive Director at UNICEF.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I look back at the Newsweek magazine’s illustrious history of nearly 80 years, and reflect on the phenomenon of news magazines: are their days numbered, at least in print?
As I turn 45 today, I can’t do better than to quote one of my favourite poets, Ogden Nash, who wrote these ‘Lines on Facing Forty’: I have a bone to pick with fate,
Come here and tell me girly:
Do you think my mind is maturing late,
Or simply rotting early?
I first heard these words quoted by the late Tarzie Vittachi, a pioneer in development journalism – and an early influence on my career – at a talk he gave circa 1990. At the time, Tarzie was already in his late 60s, but he hadn’t lost the capacity to poke fun at himself.
More than two decades later, I can better appreciate both Tarzie Vittachi and Ogden Nash. I’m now more convinced than ever that a good sense of humour – whether plain, wry or wicked – is an essential element in our survival kit as we fumble along the path of life. In my case, I’ve pledged never to take myself too seriously; however, I’m passionate and serious about what I do.
I used to give this simple caution to all my newly recruited staff members: “If you take me too seriously, you will lose your mind.
If you don’t take me seriously enough, you might (possibly) lose your job…”
After a while, I was told that it was prone to be highly misunderstood, partly because not everyone shared my play with words, and partly due to some people lacking any sense of humour. I no longer utter these words; the practical implications remain!
On more cheerful matters, my photographically keen daughter Dhara offered to shoot me as part her birthday present. I’m always happy to face cameras (and just love to make faces), so I readily agreed. Here are some of the better results, carefully chosen by the editor-publisher of this blog:
By the way, I’m perfectly happy with my salt-and-pepperish hair, and have resolved never to join the growing number of my friends quietly signing up to the ‘Godrej Brigade’ (I have no objections to others dyeing their hair: each one to her own self…).
In computing terms, I’m a WYSIWYG (pronounced: WIZ-ee-wig): an acronym for ‘what you see is what you get’. The term is used to describe a system in which content displayed during editing (on-screen) appears very similar to the final output.
I used to describe my job as one where I try to make sense of our topsy-turvy world. But I’d happily settle for the simpler description ‘connecting the dots’. This is what we as journalists covering development issues must do everyday in our work:
• link the macro with the micro; and
• find inter-relationships and inter-dependencies that aren’t always very self-evident.
This reminds of me a piece of advice given by the late Tarzie Vittachi (1921-1993), the Sri Lankan-born journalist and editor who was a pioneer in development journalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Long before climate change became an issue, he was speaking metaphorically to fellow journalists when he said: “Ordinary people live and work in the day-to -day weather. Most can’t relate to long-term climate. It’s our job, as journalists, to make those links clear.”
When Tarzie made this remark, some three decades ago, he was speaking metaphorically. Times have changed and now we are literally dealing with weather and climate issues.
Making those links is not always easy, especially if we want to avoid sensationalism, scare-mongering and other excesses that often characterize media coverage on climate change.
I made these observations when chairing a session on the North-South differences in the electronic media (television) coverage of climate change in New Delhi, India, this week. It was part of the latest international congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held at India Habitat Centre from 28 to 30 October 2009. Its theme was “Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change: Journalists’ role in Reaching an Ambitious Agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen”.
Participants – over 100 journalists covering science and environmental issues, from all over the world – recognised how climate concerns have extended beyond strict environmental (or ‘green’) issues to mainstream political, business and even security coverage in the media.
Joining me on the TV panel were two experienced journalists from news and current affairs channels — Jesper Zolk, Climate Editor of TV2 News, Denmark, and Bahar Dutt, Environment Editor of CNN/IBN, India.
As it turned out, they were a great panel – they knew a lot, and being TV journalists, also knew how to say it well and concisely. This was the second time that Bahar – one of the best known faces on Indian television today – and I have been on a panel together: almost four years ago, at IFEJ Congress 2005, also in New Delhi, she joined me to discuss ‘Does TV do a better job on environmental reporting?’
I opened my panel by showing this cartoon, one of my favourite when it comes to climate coverage in the media:
We cannot assume much more knowledge and understanding in our average TV viewer than the confused guy in this cartoon, I said. So just how do we reach out and engage millions like him (and also the better informed viewers like his fellow viewer)? How do we tell this complex, still unfolding story within the time limits of 24/7 news television, I asked.
We didn’t find all the answers in 75 minutes of our session, but at least we clarified and agreed on a few points. Bahar Dutt’s observations were particularly relevant, especially since India now has over 500 news and current affairs TV channels broadcasting to a billion plus audience in over a dozen languages.
At a time when mainstream media elsewhere in the world are struggling to stay on in business, the Indian broadcast media remain ‘chaotic but robust’, she said. “But editorial filtering is not always very strong in some of our channels, which sees climate coverage ranging from no coverage at all to hysteria,” she added.
According to Bahar, much of the climate coverage in the Indian media overlooks the links with broader development issues. “Focus is often on climate treaty negotiations, or what individual experts or politicians say. These elements are only part of the bigger picture, and we need to look further and dig deeper.”
“Environmental journalists are not green activists, and our role is to be watchdogs – keeping a sharp eye on government, industry and even civil society,” Bahar said. “But sometimes I find this watchdog role lacking in our media.”
Her advice to fellow journalists: stop seeing environment as simply a green and ‘cuddly’ sector, and move it into the political arena.
Jesper Zolk, Climate Editor of Denmark’s TV2 News, said his biggest challenge was how to get the pampered western viewers to change their lifestyles to be more climate friendly.
He urged journalists to focus not just on problems, but also on viable solutions. He expressed a concern that some journalists covering environmental issues sound more like green activists — a point that Bahar Dutt also agreed on.
She made another perceptive observation: people who have the least carbon footprint are the most keen to take action to mitigate climate change. That’s because they realise they are often the first to be impacted.
Our genial and erudite host Darryl D’Monte, chair of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI), had earlier asked participants to reflect on whether the media is part of the problem or the solution in the current crisis.
On the road to Copenhagen and beyond, we have our work cut out for us. As the Danish Ambassador to India, Ole Lønsmann Poulsen, quoted John F Kennedy in his opening remarks as saying: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
“This year alone, more than 500,000 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth. That’s one woman missing every minute of every day. We call these women ‘missing’ because their deaths could have been avoided. In fact, 80 per cent of maternal deaths could be averted if women had access to essential maternal health services.
“We know where and how these women are dying, and we have the resources to prevent these deaths. Yet, maternal mortality is still one of the most neglected problems internationally.”
Unfortunately, critical issues like these often don’t make the news – or worse, are relegated to the background as inevitable. As Joseph Stalin said in a different context, one death is a tragedy; a million deaths a mere statistic.
The challenge to the development community is to go beyond simply counting deaths in cold, clinical terms. UNICEF has recently released a two minute video, “Missing Mothers” as a tool for international development professionals to use in raising awareness of the issue of mothers dying needlessly.
Having a baby is both a very natural process and a joyous occasion for the parents and extended family concerned. Yet having a baby still remains one of the biggest health risks for millions of women worldwide.
As Unicef’s 2009 State of the World’s Children report reminded us recently, 1,500 women die every day in the world due to complications arising during pregnancy and childbirth. The chances of a woman in developing countries dying before or during childbirth are 300 times greater than for a woman in an industrialised country like the United States. Such a gap does not exist in any other social indicator.
She noted: “The solution has been known for years. The problem is the will to make it work. We also know that the solution would benefit everyone, not just women. Yet, affordable and accessible health care, for instance, has not received the thrust that is needed.”
The Missing Women video suggests to activists and campaigners that action can start with five steps: 1. Educate girls, young women and yourself; 2. Respect their rights; 3. Empower them to participate; 4. Invest in maternal health; 5. Protect against violence and abuse. The Unicef website, meanwhile, lists 10 ways in which concerned individuals can make a difference.
All very commendable and necessary — but not sufficient. With all the good intentions in the world, Unicef’s experts and officials come across as, well, detached and geeky. They don’t connect well enough to the real world people whose needs and interests they are genuinely trying to serve. Their messages are lost somewhere in their precise terms, jargon and endless acronyms.
Just take, for example, the very phrase of maternal mortality itself. Precise but also very stiff and dry. Who outside the medical and development circles uses such terms in conversation? When I write or make films about the issue, I prefer to call it ‘mothers dying needlessly while having babies’. Yes, it’s more wordy and perhaps less exacting. But most ordinary people would get what I’m talking about.
If the jargon-ridden language reads dry in text, it completely puts off people when they watch such words being spoken on video. Such films may pander to the Narcissism of Unicef mandarins, but they completely flop in terms of public communication and engagement.
This is the same point I made in October 2008 when commenting on the Unicef-inspired first Global Handwashing Day: “Passion used to be the hallmark of UNICEF during the time of its legendary executive director James Grant, who strongly believed in communicating messages of child survival and well-being. He gave UNICEF a head start in working with the media, especially television.”
Jim Grant’s deputy, journalist Tarzie Vittachi, who came over to the UN children’s agency after a stint at the UN population fund, used to say: “Governments don’t have babies; people do”. We might extend that to: inter-governmental agencies don’t have babies; real women do. That may be why Unicef insists on delivering its life-saving messages so riddled in politically and scientifically correct, but so sterile language.
Unicef’s YouTube channel has a number of short videos related to what they insist on calling maternal mortality. Here’s an example where Unicef’s Chief of Health Dr. Peter Salama says it’s really an unconscionable number of deaths, and a human tragedy on a massive scale:
We have now passed the half way mark, but progress has been patchy and unimpressive. And it will remain so as long as the UN agencies and other development players insist on peddling jargon and acronyms. Considering the issues of life and death involved here, we must view bad communication as a killer — joining the ranks of unsafe drinking water and violence against women and girls.
Writing an editorial for SciDev.Net in September 2005, I noted: “All development workers and UN officials should take a simple test: explain to the least technical person in your office the core message and relevance of your work. Many jargon-using, data-wielding, acronym-loving development workers would probably fail this test. But unless development-speak is translated into simpler language, the MDGs will remain a buzzword confined to development experts and activists.”
I don’t believe in ghosts, but it’s time to bring back the spirits of Jim Grant and Tarzie Vittachi to Unicef to again humanise the agency so mired in its own ‘geekspeak’. The intellectual rigours of evidence-based, scientific analysis must be balanced with clarity and accessibility. It’s fine to be informed by science, but learn to say it simply, clearly and concisely.
The lives of half a million women and millions of children depend on it.
This is a view of Colombo’s main cemetery, the final resting place for many residents of Sri Lanka’s capital and its suburbs. I took this photo less than a month ago, when I visited a grave on a quiet morning.
The late Bernard Soysa, a leading leftist politician and one time Minister of Science and Technology, once called it ‘the only place in Colombo where there is no discussion or debate’.
This afternoon, family, friends and many sorrowful admirers of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the courageous Sri Lankan newspaper editor who was brutally slain last week in broad daylight, took him there — and left him behind amidst the quiet company.
But not before making a solemn pledge. All thinking and freedom-loving people would continue to resist sinister attempts to turn the rest of Sri Lanka into a sterile zombieland where there is no discussion and debate. In other words, rolling out the cemetery to cover the rest of the island.
Silencing Lasantha was the clear aim of cowardly gunmen who intercepted him on his way to work and shot him at pointblank. Tarzie Vittachi, the first Lankan newspaper editor to be forced into exile 50 years ago for freely expressing his views on politically sensitive issues, once called such attacks ‘censorship by murder’. (Alas, since Tarzie uttered those words in 1990, shooting the messenger has become increasingly common in Sri Lanka.)
Rex de Silva, the first editor that Lasantha worked for (at the now defunct Sun newspaper) in the late 1970s, has just cautioned that Lasantha’s murder is the beginning of ‘the sound of silence’ for the press in Sri Lanka. Can this sound of silence be shattered by the silent, unarmed majority of liberal, peace-loving Lankans who were represented at the funeral service and the Colombo cemetery today?
How many would actually read, absorb and heed the deeply moving words of Lasantha’s one last editorial, copies of which were distributed at the cemetery and the religious service before that?
That editorial, which appeared in The Sunday Leader on 11 January 2009, embodies the best of Lasantha Wickrematunga’s liberal, secular and democratic views.
As I wrote in another tribute published today by Himal Southasian and Media Helping Media: “I have no idea which one – or several – of his team members actually penned this ‘Last Editorial’, but it reads authentic Lasantha all over: passionate and accommodating, liberal yet uncompromising on what he held dear. I can’t discern the slightest difference in style.”
“And there lies our hope: while Lasantha at 51 lies fallen by bullets, his spirit and passion are out there, continuing his life’s mission. That seems a good measure of the institutional legacy he leaves behind. If investigative journalism were a bug, the man has already infected at least a few of his team members…”
Much has been written and broadcast in the past 100 or so hours since Lasantha’s journey was brutally cut short by as-yet-unidentified goons who have no respect for the public interest or have no clue how democracies sustain public discussion and debate. I’m sure more will be written – some in outrage and others in reflection – in the coming days and weeks.
As we leave Lasantha to his rest, I remember Siribiris. For those unfamiliar with the name, Siribiris is an iconic cartoon character created by Camillus Perera, a veteran Sri Lankan political cartoonist who has been in the business as long as I have been alive.
Siribiris represents Everyman, who is repeatedly hoodwinked and taken for granted by assorted politicians and businessmen who prosper at the common man’s expense. The only way poor, unempowered Siribiris can get back at them is to puncture their egos and ridicule them at every turn. And boy, does he excel in that!
It’s no surprise that Lasantha – the bête noire of shady politicians and crooked tycoons – was very fond of Siribiris. Perhaps he saw his own life’s work as extending that of Siribiris in the complex world of the 21st century. That he did it with aplomb and gusto – and had great fun doing it, sometimes tongue stuck out at his adversaries – will be part of Lasantha’s enduring legacy. (As his last editorial reminded us, in 15 years of investigative journalism on a weekly basis, no one has successfully sued the newspaper for defamation or damages.)