Incentives in Storytelling and Journalism

Its just not like this anymore...

It's just not like this anymore...

Chris Blattman linked to an interesting critique by John Ryle about Ryszard Kapuscinski recently. Ryle’s critique of Kapuscinski essentially stems from the latter’s romanticism. Ryle argues that in his desire to stress the exotic and ‘unknowable’ element of the foreign cultures he was in, Kapuscinski stretched the truth, perpetuated myths and propagated his own misunderstandings of what he observed. Kapuscinski is a genuinely great writer so it manifests itself a little differently, but this is basically just another example of the ‘Africa: Land of Rape and Lions’  phenomenon.

Like many other development blogs, we’ve spent a lot of time moaning and complaining about the quality of journalism about our field. Sometimes we criticize the specific arguments or evidence they present. More often we rail against what we’ve described as ‘Poverty Porn’ and the myth-building exotica that characterizes so much press coverage of Africa. I used to get extremely worked up about this, but after arguing about this with my sister, a journalist for a major news outlet, I’ve come to revise my opinions.

Journalism is not and has never been simply a pursuit of the truth. This has always been part of it, but it has also always been a means to engage audiences through good writing, and to respond to popular desires. It has usually been written by generalists who specialize, though often without much more than ‘learning on the job’, because the primary skill of journalism is writing. People who genuinely write well are thin on the ground; even newspapers pad out their staff with second rate writers. Writers who can keep to strict word limits and a house style are also scarce. When assessing journalism, there are a few things about their style that we need to keep in mind.

  • News media all focus on events where most of their customers are based. As such, political writing about the UK in UK newspapers is far more common and insightful than political writing about any other country in those places, because they can assume a basic background knowledge among readers and they can build narratives and stories over days, weeks and months of blanket coverage of political events. This is not possible for UK coverage of African issues, because most people in the UK don’t want to read about Niger every single day, or even every single week.
  • The function of journalism is to impart information, of course. But this isn’t so simple: most people lack the time and patience to read an eight thousand word essay about the eating habits of the Dinka every time there’s a food shortage in South Sudan, and most newspapers lack the space to provide one. Journalists must compress information in order to impart it; by necessity this reduces the subtlety of argument.
  • Journalism is also about active education. Plenty of people don’t know where Malawi is. If a journalist wants to make people care about gay rights there, they have to put a sketch of it on the paper. That’s why we always get those lines that say ‘Malawi is a small, landlocked country of 13 million people, of whom the vast majority live in extreme poverty’, which makes those of us who know and love the country cringe. But it’s accurate, if not the whole picture. We can’t expect every article to add a two-paragraph amendment also talking about its recent clean elections or the rapid growth of the last three years unless it’s directly relevant to the story.
  • We need to remain vigilant on specific issues of morality and good practice. Kristof outing a child as a rape victim is unacceptable, even if he thinks it will increase awareness of the issue. The trade-off is murky and that alone should put us on the side of the child’s privacy. Using informants who do not exist is unacceptable: Abu Sharati steals the legitimate voice of those ‘he’ claims to represent and distorts their message – with real consequences.
  • We must also remain vigilant to factual inaccuracy. Claiming that Malawi had only one paved road, as a recent Guardian article did, has real implications: it may discourage tourist visitors or encourage charitable donations in a sector that needs much less support than others in Malawi – because of it’s exceptionally good road network.

These points above are just common sense. There are other arguments about the changing nature of journalism in response to the media environment that we must also take into account.

  • Media outlets are businesses. Like any business they analyse costs and benefits of their actions. An article written by a journalist given 8 months to familiarize themselves with the intricacies of Kenyan ethnic politics costs a lot more and attracts fewer readers than a quick article about the latest riot. What’s more, not all news is equal in business: bad news and feel-good news greatly outsells dry good news. A famine > a boy building windmills > an uneventful election. This is the case for European news as well; results of European elections tend to be reported heavily only where they are most relevant. How many of us can remember the last article in the Guardian about, say, Slovakian politics and whatever good news they might have about their development?
  • The increasing diversity of the media environment also stimulates specialization. In development, the print media are competing with bloggers who may be experts in a specific field, and dabble in journalism. As such, the journalists and bloggers specialize. We (try to) write detailed or subtle pieces that build an understanding among readers or stimulate debate over a period of several weeks, using whatever expertise we have. They write short, sharp, snappy pieces which catch the attention with a nice turn of phrase and a house style. Journalists have a comparative advantage in writing, not in technical knowledge.
  • The result of this comparative advantage is that when they spend time on Africa or development, journalists write a great deal of florid prose designed to exploit myths and captivate readers. They will almost certainly compress events and select the reality they use to do so. They aim to create feelings about places and times their readers will probably never experience and use clichés and cultural tropes to do so. Is it any more ridiculous that most people think of war, gorillas and Conrad when they think of the Congo than it is that the average guy in the fish market in Zanzibar knows France because of the Eiffel Tower, or I (who have never been to the US) think of Times Square, Ground Zero and the Empire State Building when I think of New York? These places are complex; but we can’t hold the whole complexity of the whole world in our head.

Ultimately what does this mean? The vast majority of print journalism is not meant to educate experts on Malawian agricultural subsidization. It is meant to provide an introductory understanding of an issue to laymen. For structural reasons that relate to the business of the news and the readership they cater for they have different aims for coverage of far-away events than they do for coverage of domestic events or those that more directly affect their readers. We cannot reasonably judge all journalism on the same criteria and to the same standards.

Those who know the details and care about the issues reported can and should complain long and loud when there are factual errors or dangerously poor correlations drawn in these pieces – less depth does not excuse inaccuracy. But depth and complexity is disappearing from most sections of the print media: a friend of mine is now going off the Guardian (a good newspaper, generally) altogether because of its proliferation of vacuous blogs about Wiccans and WAGs – which it publishes because they get ‘hits’ and are cheap to produce because they’re so shallowly researched. We should just recognize the media as a flawed institution that fulfills some roles and not others, try fix what we can, but remember it’s the underlying incentives in response to a changing world that determine so much of its quality or lack thereof.

6 thoughts on “Incentives in Storytelling and Journalism

  1. Adam Hooper

    February 21, 2010 at 7:16pm

    Lovely article. My view (as a studying journalist) is mostly in line with it, with a couple of alternative ways of explaining the same phenomena.

    Most importantly: if I’m meant to write a story about Malawi, I have to assume zero knowledge by my audience. Blogs can build on each other as the readers and author embark on their learning adventure together; but newspapers cannot hope to specialize their readers in that way. That’s where the “small, landlocked country” phenomenon really comes from: only under exceptional circumstances can an author assume the reader has _any_ knowledge about any subject.

    Also, storytelling is about the extraordinary. You never read about a Brit pouring cereal unless the cereal was poisoned. You don’t hear of New Yorkers taking the subway to work unless it breaks down spectacularly. Likewise, there’s no excuse for a story about cassava-peeling in northern Uganda, despite its importance in that part of the world. “Plane lands safely” stories are forbidden.

    It’s sad that by using myths to halve our word counts we perpetuate them. The worst part: journalists, editors, and readers are by and large unaware of the dozens of myths employed in any given story. It’s human nature. A fun exercise: record your voice in an interesting conversation and transcribe what you said: you’ll find you left an astonishing amount unspoken.

    Then there’s the problem of journalists not knowing what they’re writing about. I remember in the first month of the Haiti disaster, telling my journalist friends: “soon you’ll see stories about how new adoptions are a bad idea right now and about how tied aid is less helpful.” They didn’t even believe me until they heard the stories on the radio two weeks later–what kind of authority am I, after all, to relay such unintuitive hearsay from the blogosphere? Journalists _ought_ to know what they’re writing about inside-out, but they’re just ordinary people writing for other ordinary people. They’ll always lag behind blogs when it comes to myth-busting and expert opinions.

    It’s a problem, all right.

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    February 22, 2010 at 5:33am

    Adam, thanks for the insightful opinions. I agree with everything you wrote.

  3. richard

    February 22, 2010 at 2:52pm

    A very accurate analysis, if you don’t mind a contribution from an active journalist. You distinguish between news gathering, assessment of editorial priorities, and publication, three distinct places where a story changes.

    And you get the point that a journalist isn’t in the business of writing an academic report, nor an NGO report. Criticising us for failing to achieve the criteria which would amount to success for an academic or an NGO, writer is missing something important.

    Why? Our audience, our intentions and our constraints differ.

  4. […] won’t be picking up the biography: I doubt it adds more to John Ryle’s critique that I mentioned a couple of weeks back. Still, this is a good warning for those inclined to quote The Shadow of the […]

  5. Carla Murphy

    March 3, 2010 at 1:17pm

    I’m a journalist and I think you’re too forgiving. Of course it’s facile for development professionals to expect journalism to be an academic paper (and forgive me but the latter can also be a trove of bs). And I’m a bit taken aback by your post’s explanation that journalism is a business. Well. Yeah.

    But you can still write for an unfamiliar audience w/out deploying simple stereotypes. It’s been done. For me, honestly, it comes down to laziness–which happens while covering anything, not just development… so don’t feel as though your industry’s being singled out.

    The thing about covering a powerless, uneducated or distant constituency is that they’re not going to call you on your -ish. So you get away with a lot that you just wouldn’t if you were covering, say, Wall Street. Some journalists in the former group think far too little about the power they sway as they write… and that needs to change.

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