Development Journalism: defining the elephant in the dark

Development journalism is one of the many modern journalistic buzzwords. Like other similar nomenclatures, it is more fancy sounding than practically known. We all talk around it, but very seldom do we really understand. Like an elephant in the dark, everybody has his/her own definition. This ranges from experts to practitioners, novices to the enthusiasts. We all want to make the world a better place through our work in all walks of life. Journalism is no different. How to actually make the difference is the question that stares us in the face!There are as many definitions as there are conversations. We can just pick any and make a good talk. But this won’t help. We need a working definition that one could practice by employing it. When young men and women are asked to do development journalism they look at their workloads, salaries, capacities, and above all the demands of the medium/organization they are working for. And the question that strikes them most is whether their teacher/trainer/expert had ever been to the field, whether the guy has ever been through the toiling days of working up the ladder or was she/he just placed at the pinnacle. Or the person simply doesn’t mean what he is saying.

This is where we fail miserably to serve development journalism as trainers. We make it a stand-alone venture. And stand-alones are never practical; they are exceptions. All the debate on development points to an extra, out of the box, heroic effort. Something big! Something unusual! Unfortunately, this is not the case. There is nothing unusual about development journalism. Development journalism is the effort to help the people, the audience, to make informed decisions by equipping them with right information. Development journalism is not advocacy; it is just putting bits of knowledge into every story to make it more helpful in understating a human situation—the human situation journalists report in their daily routine.

Development journalism has a concept and one follows that concept in the daily routine to make a difference in everyday routine. The concept, as cited above, is to add to people’s knowledge about issues while covering the routine. The question that arises is how could one add to substance while doing the everyday spot reporting. If a video is 30-second long, how could one add to the substance? Time and space limitations are one of the major considerations of the media market. There is no escape from it. The other important element is expectation! What do people expect to hear or watch? And by this it is never meant sensation or otherwise. It is simple. A road accident spot news is a road accident. People are not looking for a documentary on how roads are built. They just want to know what did happen, how did it happen and with what effect.

The easiest way of doing a good development story is to do objective reporting. Have a look at your story and see what information is NOT needed? Where are you repeating yourself to the limits of redundancy? The skill to do the right work lies in the basics. A journalist failing to do the basics right is destined to do bad stories. If you don’t have good language skills you are definitely going to write or talk longer, repeat sentences, and go round the same words again and again. Insecurity in expression is the worst enemy of any expression, journalism being no exception.

The second most important element is breaking monotony. Read the last 10 stories you have written covering spot events of the same genre and look for something new. There won’t be any, if you are repeating the same. Think for a moment the time you and the audience are spending on this story. Is it worth repeating the same, despite the fact it is true? This is a very important question to ask. Every story should have a purpose.  Information never means repetition of the same jargon.

Once the monotony is detected, there is a need to break it. But here it is important that the news element is not compromised. One need to look for weaknesses in the report that could be rectified through brining in small bits of useful data or any other relevant facts that are easily available. The balance between news and novelty, between spot coverage and knowledge content is all that matters. The effort to make the story more objective rids the report of unnecessary words, expressions, images, voices. The place left open due to this clarity should be used to fill the report with useful information that adds to the audiences’ knowledge in a soft and regular manner.

Useful information could be anything, ranging from common numbers to names of responsible persons to connect to. Keep in mind that the audience doesn’t have the same access to information as journalists have. It is never all for granted. People might not know when a common cold becomes life threatening. People might not know if dengue mosquito could be repelled by the common lemon grass or flowers that abound all over the place. This is a bit of information that would help people make better decisions.

We should always keep the very nature of information in mind. It is not always a great revelation that people need. Something simple and useful that is not common knowledge qualifies as the best knowledge transfer. And think about all the 10 stories having this little bit of extra, each having an individual status, despite it being a routine story. A nice picture of a flower, marigold, with the details that its plant could be helpful in averting one of the scariest bites nowadays. Your story will have more aesthetics and also more credibility.

In terms of marketing and competing for space, time, and attention, rest assured that your organization will make use of the added information you have provided. If it is a video on TV, the marigold will be splashed every now and then. If it is a web story, the captioned picture will surely find a nice place on the page. And think about adding a little information each time you do a story. And keep it simple. Don’t over cook. Just add one bit at a time.

Once you have done ten stories, sit back and have a look at your work. Compare the 10 routine stories without anything new with the ones that had a little bit of information. You will see the difference, a pattern of change in your presentation of facts. You will also see that to give room to something interesting, you have vetted your story and made it a better objective piece. The improvement on objectivity has given you the room to add something to your work that has directly enhanced the quality of your product. And what does your management love most: a product that is good and also doesn’t cost in terms of time, expense, or space. You just did that. It is a win-win situation.

This is the most basic and correct way of doing development journalism, just adding something to the knowledge of your audience. Information that empowers people to make conscious decisions. Imagine all of us doing this as a habit. Development journalism will transform the very nature of development communication. And nobody is putting extra hours. Neither is anyone doing something out of the ordinary. It is all in the day’s work.

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PhD from the Institute of KMW, University of Leipzig, Germany (2004) senior Fulbright faculty at Centre for International Studies and Scripps College of Communication, Ohio University 2008-09. Currently, professor at the Department of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Peshawar. Teaches development communication, media system in Pakistan, media ethics and laws, issues in communication, peace journalism, and trauma and journalists at the department of JMC. Worked as Director Independent Project Reporting (IPR) a joint venture of GIZ, Government of Pakistan, and UoP, IPR. ( Coordinator, Competence and Trauma Centre for Journalists (CTCJ) at Peshawar University. Working in area of peace journalism, freedom of expression, and human rights and the media. Books include: Indo-Pak Press; an unpopular view, News Media and Journalism in Pakistan, and Reporting the frontier: media and media capacity building in north western Pakistan. Languages Urdu, English, German, Punjabi, and Pashto.