The very first point when we are trying to cover distant and complex issues is to reflect on our own position – who we are and how our background influences our work. This also requires a genuine understanding that journalists possess power and bear a social responsibility to use it responsibly.
Journalists have the power to influence public perceptions, and at the same time they bear the responsibility to tell the truth and make sure people’s voices are heard. Their power is largely indirect: they are not able to force people to do or not to do something. But they can set the agenda and serve as gatekeepers, determining which issues are brought into the spotlight and which remain in the shadows.
Media outlets and journalists thus play a major role in determining which narratives become dominant in their society. Unfortunately, these often play a negative role in the case of development-related issues, especially on sensitive issues such as migration.
Every time journalists present a story, they choose – consciously or unconsciously – how to frame it. They define reality by explaining the cause of events in one way and not another; they are morally evaluating the situation; and, by doing so, directing their audience towards some possible explanations and not to others.
Effectively, they project their own image of the world onto reality – and invite their audience to share that world.
Case study: Two very different views of Hurricane Katrina
These two pictures and captions were shared on Twitter by two large press agencies in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005:
‘A resident wades through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area in New Orleans’ (AFP/Getty Images, 30 August 2005)
‘A young man walks through chest-deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug 30, 2005’ (Associated Press, 30 August 2005)
- What is different about the two captions?
- Why would the journalist choose to use different words to describe the same situation?
- Do you think this was done consciously or deliberately?
- How does this relate to development journalism and coverage of development issues in general?
As journalists, we should think about our position of power critically. We should accept its existence and work responsibly with it. In the context of journalism, it means looking, understanding and reflecting on the unequal relation between journalists and their subjects, particularly Western journalists working on subjects in the global south. You can find more discussion around these ethical and practical implications in the next post.