For those of us who grew up in developing countries, political discourse about poverty is an everyday thing. Political campaigns in the Philippines, for example, place poverty upfront and center. Candidates for local posts, such as barangay (village) councilor, all the way up to the highest office in the archipelago invariably campaign on poverty issues. For instance, memorable slogans from relatively recent elections include "para sa mahirap" ("for the poor") and "pagkain sa bawat mesa" ("food on every table"). Not at all surprising in developing country contexts where poverty and inequality are so ubiquitous.
These reflections ran through my head as I attended a brown bag lunch CommGAP organized a couple of weeks ago on a Panos London publication entitled "Making poverty the story: Time to involve the media in poverty reduction", authored by Angela Wood and Jon Barnes. Presented by Barnes at the brown bag, it incorporates research findings from six African and Asian countries. The paper makes the case that mainstream media are essential in boosting public awareness and debate on poverty reduction.
Why, we may ask, are media essential to poverty reduction? The paper grounds its arguments on the following claim:
"Policy change has often stemmed from shifts in public and political opinion, and the very reach of the mass media make them a vital force in raising public awareness and debate…"
Therefore, Wood and Barnes contend,
"… high quality public service and public interest journalism in particular, should be supported as public goods in their own right, and those wishing to encourage the media to strengthen its coverage of poverty reduction should recognize and support the ability of relevant parts of the media, in principle, to play such critically independent roles."
More specifically, the report asserts that media can play the following roles in poverty reduction and policy change: informing stakeholders on poverty reduction issues; serving as an open forum for the airing of multiple views (especially those of the poor); providing an inclusive platform for deliberation and debate; and enhancing transparency and accountability, particularly in decision-making.
Wood and Barnes find, however, that the potential contributions of the mainstream media to poverty reduction have not been recognized by global actors. Reasons for this include commercial and political pressures, resource problems, focus on covering elite concerns, and poverty issues not being newsworthy.
Solutions advocated by the report include the following:
- In their reporting, journalists should tap into a wider range of experts, such as policy research bodies, NGOs, private sector actors, academics, donors, and parliamentarians.
- Policy research should be made more accessible to journalists; better events and information resources for the media.
- There should be stronger interaction between CSOs and media; CSO’s should improve their media relations skills.
- As gatekeepers, editors’ views need to be better understood.
- Audience research is key to understanding problems and constraints, as well as finding solutions.
Most importantly, the report stresses that poverty must be framed as a governance issue. In the language of political communication, this requires a shift from a "social welfare frame" to a "governance frame", by explicitly linking human interest and policy processes. Also, relationships between poverty, on one hand, and budgeting, public finance, parliamentary reporting, etc., on the other, should be treated as mainstream topics, not specialist topics. At the global level, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers and the Millennium Development Goals are examples of large strides in this direction.
The bottom line is that poverty reduction can be newsworthy, but media leadership is required to make this happen. To enable this leadership, both the overall public policy frameworks undergirding media systems as well as newsroom work routines that influence issue coverage should be revisited and, if needed, revised.
Responding to the report, discussant Hassan Zaman (Lead Economist, PREM Poverty Group, The World Bank) said that the 2002 World Development Report had made the case for the critical role of media in development. The challenge for donors is to support media while preserving media independence.
According to Zaman, The World Bank has instruments that can support media development. Development Policy Lending, meant to help states improve governance, could be used to strengthen the media sector. For example, newsprint liberalization could help newspapers reduce production costs. However, in over 50 development policy loans that Zaman looked at, not one has a media component.
Reasons for this, according to Zaman, stem from the belief that investments in the media sector are not "intuitive." First, the media overall are not public goods, although some parts of it are, such as coverage of health and education issues. Second, media support treads on political sensitivities. It is an uncomfortable space for some donors and governments. Third, there is no uniform sense of demand from journalists for expertise building. Lastly, stand-alone projects for the media are scarce because it isn’t clear who the counterparts are and where they are located.
The following additional points were raised during the open forum:
- Although we can’t expect a state to take out a loan to support its critics, high-quality media are key to development effectiveness.
- Convincing donors to support media more intensively requires that the sector define a clear set of deliverables and systematically measure impact.
- Understanding the attribution chain is essential. How does media support lead to public impact?
- Demand for journalism training is not an issue; in fact, journalists are highly driven to improve their practice.
- A capacity gap exists between international media, which tend to be more independent, and national media, which tend to be less independent.
- Training interventions should be sustainable.
- Donors themselves should be more accountable.
Reflecting on the report and the discussion, the reason cited for limited media impact on poverty reduction I found most surprising is that poverty is not newsworthy! I believe Panos London is absolutely right in arguing that poverty can and should be newsworthy. If political discourse on poverty issues is seen as a staple toward attracting voters in developing countries, then why shouldn’t it attract readers, viewers, and listeners?
Newsworthiness is not set in stone. It is defined by social and professional conventions and can thus be redefined. In fact, some of the solutions advocated by the report and brown bag participants seem to fit two political communication concepts that can influence the shape and substance of social conventions: mainstreaming poverty issues (agenda setting), and linking poverty issues and human interest to governance instead of social welfare (framing). One thing we know about these communication processes is that they work best when messages resonate with the ways in which audiences already view the world. If my experience growing up in a developing country is any indication, poverty should not be a hard sell. It’s part of everyday life.