It's just not like this anymore...
Chris Blattman linked to an interesting critique by John Ryle about Ryszard Kapuscinski recently. Ryleâ€™s critique of Kapuscinski essentially stems from the latterâ€™s romanticism. Ryle argues that in his desire to stress the exotic and â€˜unknowableâ€™ 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 â€˜Africa: Land of Rape and Lionsâ€™Â phenomenon.
Like many other development blogs, weâ€™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 weâ€™ve described as â€˜Poverty Pornâ€™ 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 â€˜learning on the jobâ€™, 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 donâ€™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 isnâ€™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 thereâ€™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 donâ€™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. Thatâ€™s why we always get those lines that say â€˜Malawi is a small, landlocked country of 13 million people, of whom the vast majority live in extreme povertyâ€™, which makes those of us who know and love the country cringe. But itâ€™s accurate, if not the whole picture. We canâ€™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 itâ€™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 childâ€™s privacy. Using informants who do not exist is unacceptable: Abu Sharati steals the legitimate voice of those â€˜heâ€™ 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 â€“ because of itâ€™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.