Redefining Development Journalism

BY Jaya Uttamchandani| IN Media Practice | 03/02/2005
Development journalism needs to adopt an action-oriented approach to help the country overcome challenges like poverty and illiteracy.

Jaya Uttamchandani

We must be the change we wish to see in the world. -Mahatma Gandhi 1

More than 150,000 people have died in 11 countries. Old news. What¿s current is the relief effort, the rehabilitation and those who survived. The aid was overwhelming. Organisations and individuals, globally, have been generous beyond words.

The entertainment sector has raised an enormous amount of money; in cricket, Asia XI played World XI to raise more than US $11 million, Michael Scumacher contributed US $10 million, Carlos Moya donated his recent prize money of US $ 52,000. Additionally, the ¿Vaada¿ fraternity ran a different kind of publicity campaign by selling the clothes used in their movie and donating the money to help Tsunami victims. Get publicity and at the same time perform a good deed -  why not? The campaigns, driven by a cause, have an underlined message ?  to tell the victims, ?you are not alone, we will see you through this tragedy.? It is clear that inDIVidual bodies, even inDIVidual people can help in rehabilitation and make a difference. 

It therefore becomes crucial to question why despite ¿development¿ journalism¿s growing popularity, the empowered media doesn¿t come across as action or cause oriented. As ¿development¿ journalists increase in numbers, so do statistics on poverty, corruption, illiteracy, diseases and pollution. Is there some confusion between ¿development reporting¿ and ¿development journalism¿? What exactly is development journalism? 

I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do. - Helen Keller 1

The Definition

According to Aman Namra, development journalism should focus on the needs of the poor, the deprived, the marginalized and should emphasize their effective participation in development planning. ?The kind of journalism that motivates the active participation of the affected people and advocating for their interests, in place of the views of  policy makers and planners.? (2)

Tsedu states that development journalism ?is about highlighting what people are doing to help transform their lives. Whether they do this alongside the government or on their own, is immaterial. The premise that development journalism is necessarily government oriented is faulty.? He believes that since the strong and mighty are able to look after themselves, journalists should concern themselves with the plight of the poor and the weak.7

?Development is seen as humanity¿s common objective and interpreted as a quest both to eradicate poverty and protect the environment,? according to Berger5. Environmental journalism and development journalism go hand in hand. One is linked to the plant while the other to the people.

And yet, environmental journalism leads to bigger success stories while development journalism progressively seems to be turning into a fad. The difference is that environmental campaigns and journalism have empowered the people - the common mass. It is Recycle Paper vs. We are running out of trees. Development issues covered today are still largely fixed on informing.

We should strive for journalism where a common problem is identified and followed by probable solutions, leading to development. Merely reporting issues related to poverty, corruption, hunger and illiteracy is not only depressing but has been repeatedly done. Journalists committed to development should look at the situation beyond just reporting it.

Put simply, it is necessary to talk about development not in the ideological sense but in tangible and measurable terms - journalism that leads to actual development.

Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I shall have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it, even if I may not have it at the beginning. - Mahatma Gandhi 1


The Problem

Despite this sounding like a cliche in a democracy (much boasted as the largest), when ?legislature and the executive are in the grip of crime, nepotism, financial scams and all other kinds of allegations,? 2 journalists must buck up and plan their role adequately. Berger argues that coverage of development today focuses on the view that a journalist¿s job is to report development and not to promote development5. There is no doubt that the mainstream media dedicates significant space and time to developmental issues, but constantly exposing a problem is not going to lead to a solution.

The problem isn¿t as simple as misinterpreting the role of a development journalist. The problem is that this body is desperately needed. Despite NGOs¿ and government bodies¿ constant work, figures related to lack of development are still escalating. Meetings, with regards to development, trace all the way to the NWICO situation and seem to be a pointless exercise. No bold proposals are made during these lavish meals. It¿s turning into a huge failure and an expensive one.

Ordinary people are finding it difficult to increase their standard of living. The poor seem to be getting poorer. The global cohort of poverty (almost half of the world¿s population of six billion) has never been larger and is still growing. More than two billion people live under the poverty line.9 Each year, 24 million women enter the child bearing stage in poor countries, and a vast number of them do not have access to adequate family planning services.? 10 These may be global figures, but the issues are Indian. With no education, no protection, no health services, how can we possibly expect population control? These facts are left dangling; no follow-ups, and no solutions!

A headline reads, ?Bangalore chokes under e-waste.? In the article, Bakul Rao, a consultant with a research body avows, ?The figures will increase by tenfold [referring to ¿more than 1000 different toxic substances lurking around] in 2020 when Bangalore will generate one-third of the state¿s e-waste.? 11 The issue had no follow-ups in the same publication. It¿s a universal fact that news is meant to be current. However, it doesn¿t have to be a new subject matter. It could be an ongoing topic with new developments.

A story stating, ?e-waste is an issue in Bangalore and the situation is predicted to get worse? is nothing. It isn¿t development journalism; it is as good as a story off the wires. Development journalism involves following the situation through. What can a man on the street do to help? Donate? Recycle? Which authorities are responsible? What is being done? What CAN be done?

The struggle is, as Aman Namra puts it, the ?media has no positive thinking and makes no effort to give society a new direction. Nor does it underline the success of the society. If we cherish the dream of a country where there is social justice for all, there is amity and mutual trust among people, there is equal distribution of resources, we need to take the society into a particular direction.?2

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. - Mark Twain (1)

The Solution

It would be devastating if coverage of the recent Tsunami stopped at death polls and people predicting how much worse it could get. The magnitude of the disaster calls for accountability, action and sensitivity. So do daily development issues. Development journalism is about a journalist¿s stamina and hunger to see something done. It need not be something as dramatic as World Peace.

?The recommended role here is to offer leadership, build role-models and promote new norms and practices ? not simply mirror events and processes. Just as environmental journalism unashamedly celebrates victories, campaigns against polluters, and popularizes participation in clean-up campaigns, development journalism should be able to indulge in campaigns and at the same time keep its integrity and independence intact.? 5

We could start off with an ¿anti-corruption week¿ whereby people stop paying bribes for just one week. Columns and write-ups during that week could suggest ways of managing without bribing, discuss the results of corruption or talk of success stories.

Or, journalists could get some inspiration from Sainath¿s work and start a ¿problem-cause-action¿ series. The problem could be anything related to development - education, population, employment or health. The work of credible organisations could be publicized series so that people know whom to contact if they want to help or need help. The media could also do a ¿state-situation-action¿ series, whereby they assess a state, inform the people about statistics related to population, literacy, NGOs etc and suggest an action plan which can be used as a benchmark for government accountability. When the elections come up, the write-up can be compared to the situation.

According to Pranay Gupte, solutions could involve empowering local entities to improve daily quality of life. 9

He suggests targeting:


  • Village Panchayats
    • Assist them to develop culturally relevant programs and to strengthen their governing structure.
  • International Monitors
    • Corruption has increased in urban areas of developing countries where foreign investments tend to concentrate.
  • Social Issues
    • Children rights, gender equality, and human right abuses
  • Use Spiritual Leaders or Role Models
    • Local cultures in many developing countries are influences far more by spiritual leaders than by politicians. 

When someone you know faces an issue, it¿s easy to see it as a story. Journalists need to know and feel for these people off the streets. Get to know the ¿Irfan¿ selling honeydews, the ¿Santosh¿ selling the MidDay at the traffic signal, the ¿Bhagi¿ who cleans the corridor floor. Represent them. Visit the slums - find your story. According to Sainath, ?Journalists ought to place poor people and their needs at the center of their stories.? 8

The task isn¿t easy. In fact, it is difficult with numerous obstacles, but the choice is yours - either do something about it or stop calling yourself a development journalist.


  1. Namra Aman, 2004, Development Journalsim vs Envelopment Journalism,
  2. Sen, Amartya, 1999. Development as Freedom, Anchor Books, New York
  3. Fleury, Jean-Marc, 2004, Development journalism or just good journalism,
  4. Commonwealth Secretant, 2004, Putting Development in Media Spotlight,
  5. Tsedu, Mathaha, Development journalism? a rethink of our times
  6. Berger, Guy Gough, The journalism of poverty and the poverty of journalism
  7. Gupte, Pranay, 1998, Whatever happened to the third world?,
  8. Gupte, Pranay, 1997, Population is a matter of people,
  9. The Straits Times, Singapore, 1 November 2004: Bangalore chokes under e-waste
  10. The Straits Times, Singapore, 24 October 2004: Fortunes rise and falls with monsoon rains
  11. The Times of India (online), 10 January 2005,
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