Four ways journalists can strengthen their coverage of development issues

by Snober Abbasi | @snobers | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 22 April 2022 09:28 GMT

REUTERS / Sivaram V

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As development challenges become ever more complex during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for high-quality journalism to shed light on these issues has never been more critical, especially in developing regions such as Asia and the Pacific.

To help journalists strengthen their coverage on a range of pressing development challenges, the Asian Development Bank and the Thomson Reuters Foundation recently brought together 15 leading editors, storytellers, innovators and subject experts for a four-part webinar series on the ‘Media’s Role in a Sustainable Recovery in Asia and the Pacific’. 

From combating online abuse to ensuring a plurality of voices, speakers outlined four ways journalists could report on development issues in accurate, equitable and effective ways without underplaying their complexity.

1. Do more solutions journalism

Studies find that a majority of the news is filled with negativity. This trend is driving a growing number of people to avoid news largely due to its negative impact on their mood.

In response, speaking at the first webinar on media’s race to survive, David Bornstein, CEO and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, told participants – mostly journalists – about the practice of solutions journalism, which focuses on reporting the response to a problem rather than simply explaining the problem.

He said solutions-focused stories help audiences easily grapple with difficult subjects and bring creative responses to social problems to the forefront, whilst holding powers to account for their inaction.

“For instance, if you’re reporting on the US government’s failure to deal with racial disparities in school suspensions, you can do an investigative piece and stop there,” added David.

“Or you can then look into other schools that have reduced this problem and write a solutions journalism piece on how they have done that. When you combine those things, it makes inaction illegitimate … It suddenly intensifies pressure on people to respond in a way just investigative journalism can’t do.”

Resources: Check out these opportunities to learn how to do solutions journalism.

Read a more in-depth summary of the first webinar or watch the recording. 

2. Focus on the relevance to everyday life – especially for climate coverage

Be it rising sea levels, typhoons, heat waves or sinking islands, Asia and the Pacific are the world’s most climate-vulnerable regions. However, the stories of people dealing with the climate change impacts in these areas often do not appear in the mainstream news, according to the speakers who addressed the second webinar on building resilience.

If every climate story begins and ends with a human angle, be it the problems people are facing or the solutions they are providing to combat the crisis, they said, it will no longer be a journalism beat that requires dumbing down of jargon, instead, it will be a human-interest story that will compel readers and viewers to make a difference to people’s lives.

Another people-related concern arises when local reporters do not add their own voices to an international story, said Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, a Samoan climate change journalist and scholar. “My tip would be wherever you are covering the story from the Global South, this is your story as well. It is the story of your people,” said Jackson. “Do justice to it by using your voice and the experiences that you have.”

In addition, speakers argued that climate change should be a story for every beat, particularly politics, investment, lifestyle and fashion. More journalists, they said, now report on how it intersects with other issues. For example, recent coverage shows climate breakdown is increasing violence against women.

Read a more in-depth summary of the second webinar or watch the recording.

3. Let everyone speak for themselves 

The voices of people directly impacted by development challenges, especially women and young people, should be at the forefront of news coverage, according to the speakers who joined the third webinar on tackling inequality.

However, in Asia, for example, women made up only 21 per cent of people seen, heard or read about in newspaper, radio, television and digital news in 2020. 

“One simple example is when we talk about the impacts of climate change on farmers and their crop yields, it’s usually a male farmer who is speaking,” said Samantha Hung, Chief of Gender Equality Thematic Group in the Sustainable and Climate Change Department at the Asian Development Bank.

“Yet, in many parts of developing Asia, the face of the farmer is female … Is the news media actually bringing out these inequalities at the forefront? I would say, probably not.” 

Beyond equal representation in stories, speakers told the participants to avoid trendy phrases such as ‘She-E-O’ which reinforce the stereotype that “it is atypical for women to be leaders”. They urged the senior managements of news outlets to promote greater diversity in newsrooms, ensure a plurality of voices, question their assumptions more and support local reporting that caters for local audiences.

Resources: Check out the BBC 50:50 Equality Project, which requires editorial teams to share data about gender representation in their stories.

Read a more in-depth summary of the third webinar or watch the recording.

4. Invest in the digital expression of journalism 

As the news industry falters under the mounting pressures of technological disruption, shrinking revenues and public distrust, a recurring message from the series was the need to invest in the digital expression of journalism.

Participants were advised to view digital as the primary vehicle for news as opposed to print, create online communities to connect and build trust with their audiences, and consider multimedia content – such as data visualisation and drone footage – to tell their stories, especially those related to complex social, digital and economic disparities.

At the same time, journalists are increasingly finding themselves battling online abuse, often targeted for the development issues their stories highlight.

It is important to create a community of like-minded people, who have your back, to combat the abuse, according to Sree Sreenivasan, CEO of digital consulting company Digimentors, who spoke at the final webinar on bridging divides.

In a 2018 survey, almost two-thirds of women journalists said they had been subjected to online abuse. “My advice is to not engage with toxic people on social media,” said Rina Chandran, Deputy Tech Editor at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Use the block and mute functions … It is simply not worth your effort.”

Resources: Journalists can soon access Harassment Manager, a tool developed by Jigsaw and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, that limits a reporter’s exposure to harmful content online and protects them from attacks.

Read a more in-depth summary of the fourth webinar or watch the recording.