Conflicts and catastrophes often make up the more prominent headlines rather than long-term development trends or global problems like the complexities of climate change.
The image of the world conveyed by aid organisations and charity campaigns focuses on rendering suffering and plight visible, for the purpose of raising money to improve the situation. Meagre foreign resources of news agencies and the media also exacerbate the worldview-reality gap.
But how do we break the mould and report on developing countries diversely?
First, it’s important to bear in mind that developing countries are not a single homogenous group. Developed and developing countries are usually differentiated according to GDP. The limit for high-income economies in 2017 is $12 476 gross domestic income per inhabitant.
The GDP division is based purely on economic indicators, bundling together very different countries in terms of their background and living conditions. As a yardstick, it doesn’t take into account the inequality and income gaps existing within countries. Development can be measured using such things as the Human Development Index (HDI) and in Bhutan an altogether different index has been developed: Gross National Happiness (GNH).
Apart from matters of definition, news coverage of developing countries is hampered by a day-to-day focus on exceptional events. The upshot is that stories highlight armed groups or terrorist organisations, for instance.
In 2014, the Finnish Foundation for Media and Development (Vikes) carried out a survey that monitored the news coverage of developing countries in the Finnish media over the course of a week. The survey revealed that for the most part copy on developing countries was written in Finland. None of the stories were written in developing countries, and they didn’t include the voices of local people. Most of the citations used during the period surveyed were directly from the army major who led the mission to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons in the Mediterranean.
The attention paid in developing country news coverage to negative events reinforces the picture of countries of the global South as unstable, corrupt, and failed states. The image created is of countries that need Western assistance and continual meddling in their internal affairs.
Tips for journalists
- Don’t only interview relevant official bodies, such as organisations, officials, and experts. Look for people too whose daily lives are affected by the situation.
- Contextualise your story for the reader: if you are writing about a conflict, introduce the parties involved and the key factors to do with the cause and development of the conflict.
- Show the connection between individual events and global politics. The majority of regional disasters and armed conflicts have a wider dimension.
- Keep your eyes open and remember that daily life goes on in the shadow of crisis. If you are on assignment in a conflict or disaster area, write about ordinary everyday life too.
- Seek out innovative and positive developments. People’s quality of life is continually improving in developing countries. And readers may find it interesting.