Why development coverage fails to have impact

BY Lycra| IN Media Practice | 03/02/2004
Both development agencies and the media display the same shortcomings in tackling development coverage: little understanding of the root causes of the problem, a short-term approach and no follow-up.

Reprinted with permission from The Drum Beat - Issue 234 -       Reporting on Development Issues, February 2, 2004 http://www.comminit.com/drum_beat_234.html

          The source: The Communication Initiative -www.comminit.com

By Paulo Lyra
Communications Advisor
HIV/AIDS Unit, Pan American Health Organization


It is a paradox. Institutions working to improve health, socio-economic conditions and the environment are acutely aware of the limitations of the news media in reporting development issues. Yet, our approach to this problem contains some of the same shortcomings of the media itself.

For the purpose of this text, I will not examine why the news media is important. Other papers have already dealt with that. We know that the news media is a key factor influencing everything from political decision making to individual behaviour change. Neither will this paper cover other areas of the media - like entertainment, alternative media and other tools and approaches - which also play an important role in the public debate of development issues.

The focus here is on the vast number of initiatives aimed at improving the media coverage of development issues. But why do we need to "improve" such coverage? Problems in coverage include: incorrect use of data, terms and concepts; sensationalism; focus on the problem and not on the solution; lack of interest in development issues; prejudice against stigmatized groups; and, lack of skills to handle ethical dilemmas. The full list is much longer. I chose to highlight the above because they best represent the challenges to improve HIV/AIDS reporting in Latin America and the Caribbean, the region and focus of my interest and where I have worked as a journalist in the past.

These problems in coverage have different roots.  Many originate from the structural crisis of the news media. All over the world news media are strapped for cash. Development news is expensive to cover, compared for instance with political affairs, and doesn`t help to sell newspapers as sports news does. Reporters are poorly paid and do not have time to investigate different subjects ("I am on a deadline, sir"). Most didn`t benefit from an enriching academic life. Many lack access to reference information. Some don`t have a budget to travel or even to make long distance calls.

Whatever the cause, changing this reality is a complex task. It requires the use of a wide range of tools, over a large period of time. Yet we seem to think that we can change this through traditional, one-dimensional approaches such as training workshops, awards, contests and manuals specifically for journalists.

Training workshops are a favourite change approach, and thus, I will examine them in more detail. In fact, often times the entire "communications strategy" of a development project consists of one or more workshop. Self-contained activities, with clear-cut objectives and few assumptions, training workshops are easy to budget and can be implemented - and "evaluated" - in a short time. They fit very nicely in logical frameworks. All this explains their popularity among communicators and non-communicators alike.

Many workshops focus on improving the level of information for journalists. Others help journalists to identify solutions for development problems. Some even deal with their prejudices against the poor, women and minorities. But only a few are designed in a participatory way. The majority consist of a series of lectures by experts, some of them terrible speakers, where journalists do little more than take notes.  And when there is actual debate, it is circumscribed to the few days the journalists are together. Follow-up activities are rarely included in the design. With these limitations, it is unrealistic to expect journalists to engage in a serious - and sustainable - critical assessment of their professional practice.

As for the structural problems of the news media, not even the best designed workshops can address them, because by definition they focus on the journalists and not on the journalist`s working conditions.

In the short term, workshops look good. Their "impact" can be measured by the attendance and the number of articles and broadcast stories produced right after the event - a guaranteed success, since editors already expect reporters to produce a couple of stories to compensate their absence from the newsroom.

Real, long-term impact is another tale. Long term evaluations are rare, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they usually require a period longer than the lifespan of a project or workshop follow-up. In addition, turn over in news rooms is extremely high. In developing countries the professional career of a journalist is short. By the time they are 35, sometimes earlier, either reporters became editors, or they have left the trade entirely.  This means that whole cohorts of participants of the workshops move to work in other areas. These former participants may still benefit individually from their attendance, but they no longer contribute to making the reporting of development issues any better. Because of this and the other limitations mentioned above, and in the absence of real impact evaluations, it is reasonable to assume that most workshops have little long-term impact.

It is also important to note the lack of synergy among the institutions that promote workshops. It is quite common for a health journalist to be invited to a workshop on Dengue in April and one about Malaria in May. Or to be invited to two different workshops on HIV/AIDS in the same semester.

Unintentionally, this competition drives the costs up. These meetings typically bring 10 to 40 journalists together and can cost as little as US 3,000. But to stand out among so many workshops, and to ensure a good turn out of senior reporters or preferably editors, it is imperative to locate the meeting in a pleasant destination and offer exquisite food. The result is budgets of US 40,000 and growing. Shouldn`t we be spending this kind of money on more sustainable activities, instead of expensive hotel rooms?

There is also a growing trend to make more use of technology in these meetings - anything from computers to satellite-fed debates. While the employment of technology should be praised when it expands the reach of the activities and reduces their cost, sometimes these tools are used just as gimmicks to entice journalists to come to the meetings. In the end they also help to drive up the costs.

As mentioned above, other favourite traditional, one-dimensional approaches to improving news reporting include awards, contests and manuals, all of which share some of the same limitations as training workshops. Most of them don`t address the root causes of bad reporting, have a short-term approach and provide no follow up. In addition, in recent years journalists in developing countries started raising ethical concerns about awards and contests. The criticism targets primarily their manipulative use by the private sector, but development agencies should look at these concerns and, if necessary, adapt their activities accordingly.

Fortunately, there are a healthy number of institutions and initiatives that are aware of these problems and work on innovative approaches to improve reporting of development issues. Two examples from my region are ANDI ("News Agency for Children`s Rights" - http://www.andi.org.br/ ) and RED SALUD ("Health Network" - http://www.comminit.com/la/redsalud/). The first has a highly innovative and participative approach to analysis and discussion of news, brought to scale thanks to UNICEF`s commendable vision. The second is a new initiative spearheaded by PAHO, The Communication Initiative - Latin America, and Gabriel Garcia Marques` foundation (FNPI), which created a discussion forum for 350 Spanish-speaking health journalists. Outside Latin America, there are many examples that are equally important, including the Journalist-to-Journalist project (J2J), which brings senior and junior journalists together to discuss ways to improve the coverage of the HIV epidemic. J2J, which is implemented by the National Press Foundation, is also one of the most thoroughly evaluated initiatives in this area.

Hopefully more initiatives of the kind will emerge and more institutions will come together to fund existing initiatives, particularly those looking at long-term, participatory ways to improve coverage of development issues. As for the workshops and other traditional approaches, by no means am I advocating that we should abandon them. I would like to stress this because I have been misinterpreted in the past. We should use training workshops as an approach to improving media coverage when they constitute the best alternative. But let`s ask more questions about their impact and use the answers to design a new generation of tools aimed at improving reporting of development issues.

Contact: paulolyra@yahoo.com





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