Reading the New York Times Op’d “Yes, we were warned about Ebola”, I kept thinking how can we make sure mainstream media covers development and humanitarian issues before these transform and become catastrophes?
I kept asking myself how can we influence the “subjective” selection of news and raise awareness that in our networked world the outbreak of a disease, drought and famine miles away from our home, wars in distant lands, genocides among cultures different than ours, extreme weather conditions in different parts of the world, while at prima facie may appear as local news ultimately will have dramatic and serious impact at a global level, thus impacting us as individuals.
So would not it be better if the pseudo local news is covered adequately from the outset, as opposed to when the damage is done?
Unlike the medical profession that encourages prevention as a cure, the media seems to prefer to wait until some “newsworthy” event - aka catastrophe - happens to then “run the “news”. This is not because reporters and journalists are evil people, it is because that is the nature of the beast.
If we look back in time in the novel Scoop, Evelyn Waugh described news as follows: “Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much anything wants to read”.
Couple of decades earlier, Pulitzer talks about news as “What is original, distinctive, dramatic, romantic, thrilling, unique, curious, quaint, humorous, odd, apt to be talked about, without shocking good taste or lowering the general good tone, above all without impairing the confidence of the people in the truth of the stories of the character of the paper for reliability and scrupulous cleanliness.”
More recently Alain De Botton defined news as "The determined pursuit of the anomalous.”
John Bogard a century ago shares his view on what constitutes news: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”
I wonder whether the reporters covering dog bites will ever consider the incidence of rabies before deciding to discard the news of a dog biting a man as “non-news” as opposed to wait until rabies in the neighbourhood becomes a pandemic to cover the story.
Let’s pause a moment and remind ourselves that the goal of journalism is to keep citizens informed and appraised of the news that may affect them as individuals or impact their communities. And yes, journalism also has a watchdog function, to report on what governments are doing. And we all know that news has a cycle. Something that is news today, may not be news in three days time.
While this may be true for what I label as conventional news covered by major media outlets, this is not the case for development news.
Development-related news is always NEWS. Development-related news remain news until such time that there is no famine, no drought, no adverse climatic event, no epidemic, no disease outbreak, no child malnutrition, no poverty, no landgrabbing, no gender inequality, no child labor, no exodus of displaced people, no overcrowded refugee camps, no food shortage, no genocide and no humanitarian crisis.
After all, is not covering the news a means to provide facts and give context while bringing attention to global and local issues? So, why is it that there is no steady flow of development related news and why is it that we still have not cracked this nut?
The Economist piece Coming full circle argues that “The biggest shift is that journalism is no longer the exclusive preserve of journalists. Ordinary people are playing a more active role in the news system, along with a host of technology firms, news start-ups and not-for-profit groups. Social media are certainly not a fad, and their impact is only just beginning to be felt. “It's everywhere—and it's going to be even more everywhere,” says Arianna Huffington. Successful media organisations will be the ones that accept this new reality. They need to reorient themselves towards serving readers rather than advertisers, embrace social features and collaboration, get off political and moral high horses and stop trying to erect barriers around journalism to protect their position. The digital future of news has much in common with its chaotic, ink-stained past.”
Pulitzer prize winner, Max Frankel said: “since no one can precisely define the nature of news, virtually anyone can claim to be a journalist.” And the 2006 Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that 34% of bloggers consider their blog as a form of journalism.
It’s fair to say that there are not enough journalists to cover all the news. And today, thanks to the advances in technology and the increasing acceptance of crowdsourcing as a form of reporting, we still do not seem to be able to provide adequate coverage of development-related news.
I wonder whether the world of journalism, reporters and media in general would consider leveraging development workers as eyewitnesses, allowing them to contribute to the news agenda and advocacy journalism.
By doing so, they will have a continuous and steady flow of information and news not only to raise awareness about global events, facts and realities that sooner or later will impact people’s lives at all levels, but also take a proactive role in contributing to what Philip Graham called “first rough draft of history.”