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4.12 : Stories through the concept of nonuniform modernization(s).

As journalists, you will often encounter stories taking place in unknown environments, in culturally unfamiliar or geographically distant contexts. In these cases, it is often useful to use an analytical tool to grasp the topic in a structured way. One useful approach is the concept of nonuniform modernization.

Author: Peter Ivanič, Kenya, 2018

As journalists, you will often encounter stories taking place in unknown environments, in culturally unfamiliar or geographically distant contexts. In these cases, it is often useful to use some analytical tool to grasp the topic in a structured way.  

One way to do this is to use the concept of nonuniform modernization. This framework does not originate from journalistic practice, but it is easily adaptable to journalists’ needs, whether you are working from behind a desk or in the field. It can help you to grasp the story in a more conceptual and analytical way without losing sight of the human dimensions of your story. 

Imagine you want to discuss human mobility within and out of West Africa: for example, from Senegal. How to grasp the topic analytically and conceptually? The issues can be broadly divided into three distinct, but closely interrelated parts – sociodemographic, economic and political modernization. Ideally, they should be in alignment. This may sound a bit academic, but in fact it is quite a simple idea.

We can imagine the growth of education as a result of sociodemographic modernization; an increase in the quantity and quality of employment (more and better paid jobs with higher added value) as a result of economic modernization; and with political modernization, a growth of opportunities in the ability of people to take part in public governance.

But let’s come back to Senegal. This country has gone through a significant increase in educational levels since 2000, especially among the younger generations. With increased education, career ambitions naturally rise: people who have received a better education then want to get better paid work. However, crippled economic modernization is unable to keep pace with these aspirations. Some people resolve this through internal mobility from the countryside to large towns and in particular the Dakar area, others decide to move to other countries in the West African Union while a smaller proportion decide to take their chances and go to Europe. 

Another perspective is related to stagnating political institutions. People with higher levels of education are naturally more empowered and willing to take part in public governance. But in cases of political stagnation, their hopes of greater civic participation remain unfulfilled. 

This kind of discrepancy can lead to social tensions with a range of consequences, from deciding to leave the country to political dissent, even civil war. There are some vivid examples of this in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, but the same logic can easily be adapted to examples around the world. 

And what else besides the potential decision to migrate to Europe connects Senegal with the EU? While the EU is quite active in offering and organizing vocational education in Senegal, the follow-up is missing. Young people who have gone through this enhanced education system now have higher career aspirations thanks to European money, but Europe does not then enable them to fulfil them.

On top of these trends may be factors that aren’t immediately apparent to you. Senegal is affected by climate change in a number of ways, for instance. Rising sea levels and coastal erosion are leading to the displacement of fisher communities, while desertification inland and in neighbouring states is disrupting the migration patterns of pastoralist communities. These factors may also contribute to the decisions being taken by young Senegalese to migrate. 

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4.1 : As opportunities to travel shrink, opportunities to communicate across the world have improved rapidly.

While the opportunities for media houses to send journalists abroad have been shrinking, the ability of journalists to cover issues taking place on the other side of the world have been greatly increased thanks to recent advances in communication technologies. In fact, most coverage on global issues is now done from behind a desk. Fortunately, it is possible to produce high quality coverage on global issues, including migration, from this setting. All it requires is a fresh approach and a shift in perspective.

4.2 : Is a desk-based approach to global journalism possible?

Media outlets must cover landmark events and issues. But at the same time they have the opportunity to do something more, to offer the audience a deeper and more diverse picture of the reality around us, even without being on the ground. And journalists, by following this approach, can enrich their portfolios with unique and groundbreaking stories.

4.3 : Changing your approach to desk-based research.

There are a few preliminary steps you can take to begin with if you would like to enrich your desk-based coverage: starting with some broad research to give you an overview, compiling further resources to follow up, changing your routine a little and considering the criteria you want to select news coverage from agencies and other sources.

4.4 : Collecting findings from behind a table: tips and suggestions.

In the old days, reporters had to rely on expensive and unreliable communication services to develop their stories. Nowadays, journalists have a universe of new technologies to communicate across the world – reliably, instantly and for free (or almost). This is the ‘new normal’ for news coverage and journalists have to adapt to make the most of these new opportunities.

4.5 : Balance and analysis.

Covering culturally and geographically distant contexts brings a variety of challenges. How do you achieve the right balance? How can you feed it into the bigger picture? How do you avoid the dangers of depoliticization and other common pitfalls of Western coverage of the global south? How can you analyse a subject you are not yourself an expert in? And can you make these unfamiliar contexts relevant and accessible for your audience? Fortunately, there are tools which can help.

4.6 : Before you start.

Planning is the essence of good coverage. Before you go anywhere or start your work, define precisely what you are interested in. Then do the research – find out what is already known about the topic. Do not forget additional, contextual information while doing so. Write down from where and from whom you could get information, and how could you use it. And finally, categorize your sources – from those simple to obtain to others more difficult to reach – and begin with the latter.

4.7 : Giving your story a hook.

A hook is a technique to make your story engaging, going beyond the ‘five Ws’ of journalism: who, what, when, where and why. Put simply, it answers the question ‘So what?’. Another perspective relates to narrative technique to open your story to hook attention in order to keep reading/watching/listening. Here we deal with the former one. These can be, for example, various events or reports.

4.8 : Making entry into a community.

It is important to get voices of people whom the issue you cover somehow relates to. Therefore, it is important to enter the community itself when covering migration and/or development issues. Find tips and suggestions how to do that.

4.9 : Pitching stories to editors.

When you are attempting to challenge the dominant discourse, persuading media outlets to commission your stories can be more difficult. A good pitch could help. Journalists use pitches to persuade editors that their suggested topics are worth covering.

4.10 : Live reporting.

Being in the field is a unique opportunity to bring something special – such as live reporting. Find inspiration about what you can do and how to do it.

4.11 : On the ground.

You are in the field – with all the challenges that brings. How can you proceed to find valuable content? Leave enough time to be able to distance yourself and gain perspective. Do not overestimate your memory and don’t forget about accompanying visual materials. And be flexible!

4.13 : Dilemmas in the field.

Fieldwork brings a variety of challenges and even dilemmas for journalists. Some common examples of these are covered here. They include cooperation with NGOs, international organizations, local representatives, community members themselves and fixers.

4.14 : Working with your fixer.

One of the ways to overcome the challenges journalists face in unknown contexts is to cooperate with a fixer who will be able to fill you in on the background and help you access the stories you need. There are websites such as www.worldfixer.com or www.hostwriter.org where you can find more information. Another option is to engage with groups on social media and ask other journalists for advice.

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