*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Journalism cannot solve poverty

30 November 2012

Reporting on development is fraught with pitfalls, says Paul Vallely

HOW do you write about poverty in an indifferent world? The week of the Leveson report is not a bad time to step off the treadmill of the news agenda to ask a few questions about the values that underlie the way we look at the world. The stimulus for me was a request to take part in a seminar at the Frontline Club on news values and the developing world. The lessons it offers have a wider application.

The shock of encountering the reality of poverty in famine-struck Ethiopia in 1985 changed my perspective on life. As I moved from one African country to another, the common factors quickly made me realise that the problem was not just the weather and bad government, but the relationship between the rich and poor worlds, which was systemically structured to keep us rich, or make us even richer, and keep them poor. Naïvely, I thought that if only the iniquity of that system was exposed and explained, then public indignation would compel change.

Nearly three decades on, I understand that the politics of poverty is different, and that the media is in many ways part of the problem. News values focus on events rather than situations, symptoms rather than causes. The insatiable thirst for novelty gives journalists a short attention-span. "We did starving people last week; what's new? Let's do how the aid goes astray, corrupt governments, nasty dictators, and all the rest." But there is more to this than an institutional attention-deficit syndrome.

Bob Geldof has talked about "the pornography of poverty". It's an apt phrase because so much coverage of disasters focuses on sensation rather than relationships. It requires ever more novel or extreme examples to be deemed worthy of space or airtime. And it portrays those who suffer as victims, over whom we stand in a relationship of power, often disguised as pity.

Aid agencies try to guard against this by insisting on positive images in the photos used to publicise their work. But news editors - and indeed agencies' own fundraisers - have little truck with that. An additional problem is that news-editing is such a high-pressure job that it has a fast turn-over, which means that the gatekeepers to what gets in our newspapers constantly need re-educating out of the ignorant understanding of aid that they share with most of the population.

"Ignorant" is not a kind word. It implies not just lack of knowledge, but a lack of care. Yet that is what subconsciously underlies the chic cynicism of the constant stream of snide sniping about corruption and failed aid projects. Of course, there are failures, but the substantial majority of aid succeeds in alleviating poverty or promoting economic development. This knocking copy shows more than indifference; it reveals a resistance, or even hostility, rooted in a subliminal urge to maintain and justify the status quo financially, psychologically, and emotionally.

Insightful journalism can challenge that. But it is no easy task getting space to write it. This is why, in the end, journalism alone cannot deliver. It is why I embraced more direct activism, working with aid agencies such as Christian Aid, CAFOD, and Traidcraft, and becoming involved with Bob Geldof and Bono in the Commission for Africa, Live 8, and Make Poverty History, lobbying G8 governments on debt-relief at Gleneagles in 2005.

Not all the promises that were made there were delivered, and world leaders have failed utterly on trade reform. But, as a result of what was done at Gleneagles, 40 million more children are in school, six million people with HIV or AIDS are on life-saving drugs, malaria has been halved in eight countries, and 1700 fewer children die every day from preventable diseases. Journalism alone could not have delivered that.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

Train-a-Priest Fund 2022 Appeal

Please consider a donation to TAP Africa this year. Every penny you can give goes to ordinands in Africa who face financial difficulty, to support them as they complete their training. 

Donate online

Read more about this year's appeal

Forthcoming Events

24 May 2022
Disability and Church: Intersectionality
A joint webinar from HeartEdge and Church Times.

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

More events

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)