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It's Bad News . . . Again

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

It happens so regularly, it's nearly clockwork: somebody looks up from news of the latest disaster and asks, "Where's the GOOD news?"

Charles Kenny asks this question of development coverage in his latest blog post for the Center for Global Development. There are several reasons why nobody knows about the tremendous progress being made in Africa, he and others argue: it's hard for the media to repeatedly report on disasters averted; tragedy sells; NGOs and aid agencies have an incentive to trumpet crises in order to keep international attention focused and money coming in.  But the costs of continuously negative coverage of development include deterred investment, dispirited local populations and aid fatigue among donor nations.

Can anything be done? Kenny mentions a code of conduct covering communications, developed by the General Assembly of European NGOs, which stipulates that signatories "avoid approaches that potentially stereotype or sensationalise people, situations, or places" and "truthfully represent the particular situation both in its immediate and in its wider context." This is certainly one approach for NGOs, although I'm not sure it will ultimately impact media coverage.

Reporters are (and should be) focused on telling newsworthy, truthful and interesting stories; they shouldn't be worried about trying to balance out "bad news" with "good news." The challenge for NGOs and development agencies is to present development stories compellingly, elevating the "news" factor for the media in stories of development progress. This isn't as easy as it sounds, for all the reasons outlined above. But it seems to me that this approach, rather than a code governing NGO speech, speaks to the realities of the media business and may be more likely to achieve the desired results. 

Photo Credit: Flickr user Andrea Alessandretti

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