How journalism aids development

By Bradley W. Parks

Credit: Khalid Albaih
Credit: Khalid Albaih

There are many conversations that take place around the Millennium Development Goals, yet one crucial piece often missing from these discussions is an explicit call for a free and vibrant press.

Part of the reason behind this is the fact journalism is not often seen as a contributor to development. Yet on closer inspection, one can observe that journalism dramatically affects political, economic and social development. How? An informed public can ultimately demand – and likely achieve – much more than an uninformed one.

To achieve the MDGs and other alternatives, people must know the goals and what they represent and stay updated on eventual changes and progress. This requires responsible media producers and consumers.

If a bomb explodes in the desert and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Millennium Project Director Jeffrey D. Sachs wrote the MDGs are “the rare and powerful opportunity to help give voice to … the world’s poorest and most voiceless people.”

Labeling people as “voiceless” is inaccurate. Everyone has a voice, but mainstream media have the loudest microphone. While journalists still keep microphones around the world, they are often pointed in the wrong direction.

A number of issues including government restrictions, public relations and propaganda, and limited resources prevent media from amplifying voices. These also stifle people from simply using their own voices.

Anjan Sundaram was a stringer for the Associated Press in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In an essay for The New York Times, he argues global stories are only covered if they are “spectacular and gruesome.”

“The news machine, confused about its mandate, has faltered,” Sundaram wrote. “Big stories are often missed. Huge swaths of the world are forgotten or shrouded in myth. The news both creates these myths and dispels them, in a pretense of providing us with truth.”

Part of that mandate Sundaram mentioned is to hold those in power accountable and expose injustice. The Millennium Project called for “institutions of government accountability” and “watchdogs for the development and implementation of government policies,” but failed to demand sound journalism.

Journalism in its purest form is an independent institution of government accountability. Good journalism can spark global action.

Take Syria for example. Rukmini Callimachi covers the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, for The Times.

“We’re now in this treacherous landscape where, in part because of our own reporting, the biggest prize is a journalist,” Callimachi said in an interview with Longform.

Syria is currently the single most dangerous place for a reporter to set foot. Journalism exposes the so-called Islamic State’s mission – widely seen as an evil one. Because of this, journalists have become targets, further emphasized by the beheadings of multiple foreign reporters.

Much of the coverage of Syria is done beyond the country’s borders with help from fixers on the inside. Despite few if any reporters actually working on the ground in Syria, the conflict receives heavy attention. There is movement in the form of airstrikes and ground troops. People are working to solve the problem, in part because of concentrated reporting across foreign media.

Terror is not all that grabs our attention, though, and violence is not our only reaction. The key takeaway from coverage of Syria is attention typically elicits movement. If people have little idea of the scale and scope of a problem, their incentive to fix it is minimized.

If a bomb explodes in the desert and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? More importantly, does anybody care if it does?

An outpouring of support came after Islamic State militants beheaded reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The same happened after gunmen peppered the Charlie Hebdo newsroom with bullets and when Egyptian authorities threw three Al Jazeera journalists behind bars.

But the cries for free press should not come exclusively in the wake of tragedy. The value of the news seems to be overlooked otherwise.

After Foley’s beheading, Tom A. Peter penned an essay for The New Republic addressing waning appetites for global coverage.

“I wish I could believe that such an extraordinary person [Foley] died striving to inform an American public yearning to know the truth,” Peter wrote. “It’s harder to accept what really happened, which is that he died while people eagerly formed opinions on his profession and the topics he covered without bothering to read the stories he put in front of them.”

Though people now consume more information in more ways than ever before, it seems they know less of the world in which they live.

We can and likely will spend plenty of time discussing why the MDGs had limited, uneven impact. (We certainly will at Bokamoso, if you read about our theme.) But perhaps the more important question is if people care what happens with the MDGs.

In order for the United Nations’ next development plan to succeed, we must find ways to make it mean something to more people. New development goals must be on everyone’s radar. Journalism – a free and vibrant press – is key to getting them there.

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