During the 1970s and 1980s, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization was the site of vociferous debate about global communication. Collectively, these arguments have come to be known as the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) debate. Nations of the south, many of which had relatively recently emerged from colonial domination, demanded a restructuring of the flows, distribution, and practice related to global information and communication. Many nations of the west, led by the United States and Great Britain, resisted any restructuring, arguing that such changes would have to be mandated by governments and would amount to undermining sound universal principles such as the free flow of information. Among the most contentious issues in the debate was development journalism – a term referring to the role of the press in the process of socio-economic development, primarily in countries of the south.
Development journalism was conceived in the 1960s at the Press Foundation of Asia (PFA), where Filipino journalists Alan Chalkley and Juan Mercado were concerned that news organizations were inadequately covering socio-economic development. Journalists were reporting government press releases and quotes but giving little attention to detailed analysis, interpretation, or evaluation of development projects, policies, or problems. Their concerns led Chalkley and Mercado to organize seminars at the PFA to train journalists in the art of development journalism.
The Debate About Development Journalism
Development journalism, as conceived at the PFA, implied an adversarial relationship between independent news media and the government in which reporters offer critical evaluation and interpretation of development plans and their implementation. Development journalism challenges traditional news values, gives priority to the needs of ordinary people, and recognizes that objectivity is a myth. Development journalism results in news that provides constructive criticism of government and its agencies, informs readers how the development process affects them, and highlights local self-help projects (Aggarwala 1980; Golding 1974).
Even as the concept of development journalism gained a following in Asia and beyond, the practice of development journalism was quickly appropriated by national leaders to justify government control of mass media and to promote state policies, often as part of larger campaigns of repression (Domatob & Hall 1983). Sometimes this appropriation was called “developmental journalism” (Sussman 1978), indicating a form of reporting and writing that viewed the task of news media as explicitly and uncritically supporting the government in achieving its development goals. Critics of developmental journalism said it opened the door for government control of the press. The result of such control, said the critics, was an emphasis on government success stories and uncritical government say-so journalism, not investigative and thorough development news as proposed by development journalism advocates such as the staff at PFA.
Critics such as Stevenson (1988) and Sussman (1978) proclaimed the failure of development journalism despite recognizing the vast differences between how development journalism was originally conceptualized and how the term was appropriated (as developmental journalism) to serve as a rationale for state control of national media. By suggesting that development journalism is inevitably controlled by government ministries and officials, the critics’ declarations of failure hurt even the development journalism projects taken on by independent media.
Thus, “debate” over development journalism often boiled down to a simplistic dichotomy: western commercial media were free while third world mass media were strictly controlled and manipulated by political elites. This questionable formulation gained a measure of acceptance among some academics and journalists as a “developmental” theory of the press (Hachten 1993), even though it could not be consistently supported empirically since some western governments also owned and controlled national media (particularly broadcasting) while many third world countries had independent and even oppositional media.
Further, others pointed out that even though developmental journalism might indeed uncritically emphasize government success stories, it did not mean that such reporting has no potential to contribute to development. Whether a government elected to control the media and use it for developmental journalism or the media freely reported development news in the way defined by PFA, development news contributes to development only if it possesses certain characteristics.
The criteria for development news, i.e., determining whether or not a news item can potentially contribute to development, should not be based on the source of the message (i.e., independent media or government-controlled media) but rather on the characteristics of the message itself. Aggarwala (1980), Shah (1996), and others have described the characteristics of effective development news. It should critically examine, evaluate, and interpret the relevance of development plans, policies, and programs. It should indicate the disparities between plans and actual accomplishments and include comparisons with how development is progressing in other countries and regions. It should also provide contextual and background information about the development process, discuss the impact of plans, projects, and policies on people, and speculate about the future of development. And development news should make reference to basic needs of the population. News items that do not refer to some of these features cannot be considered development news.
Relationships Between Mass Media and Society
To highlight the unique features of development journalism, the concept should be distinguished from three similar ideas about the normative relationship between mass media and society. These are the social responsibility theory, articulated by the US Commission on the Freedom of the Press (1947); the democratic-participant perspective, summarized by McQuail (1987); and communitarian journalism detailed by Christians et al. (1993).
Social responsibility theory calls for journalism that emphasizes interpretation and analysis tempered by a devotion to fairness and neutrality. The theory suggests that journalists have an obligation to provide citizens with thorough, incisive, and useful information. In exchange, the press is provided with freedom from pressures and constraints that could be imposed by government and business interests. Development journalism also calls for comprehensive reporting with a critical edge. But while social responsibility theory supplements neutral reporting with an interpretive and analytical approach, development journalism requires not only provision of socially relevant information, but also journalistic advocacy in challenging oppression of all kinds.
The democratic-participant model features media that are small-scale, decentralized, and owned and operated by their users. The model assumes that certain audience needs are not adequately met by large, centralized, commercially oriented media and that professional communicators should have a minimal role in the communication process. The primary emphasis of this model is providing individuals and groups with access to channels of communication through which their voices can be heard. However, media access seems to be the ultimate goal. Although McQuail (1987, 122–123) claims that the model is informed by an eclectic “mixture of theoretical elements, including libertarianism, utopianism, socialism, egalitarianism, environmentalism, and localism,” there is no explicated theoretical or practical link between gaining access to media and movement toward alternative social organization. In development journalism, individuals are also given a means of voicing critique and articulating alternative visions of society. But then, the professional communicators disseminate the voices from the grassroots in forms and formats that can mobilize action to force policymakers to institute reforms.
Communitarian journalism, in its call for changing journalism’s preoccupation with dualism, scientism, and individualism, represents a model with several elements in common with development journalism. For example, both models urge journalists to assume a central role in helping construct community identities and critiquing unequal power relations and distribution of resources. Both models also encourage journalists to abandon the role of neutral observer while reporting in a manner that is thorough, deeply researched, historically and culturally grounded, and oriented toward progressive social change. However, community building takes place, in communitarian journalism, by “engender[ing] a like-minded philosophy among the public,” a problematic proposition because it implies a fixed and universal understanding of community that exaggerates harmony and homogeneity (Calhoun 1993). From the perspective of development journalism, on the other hand, a primary focus is on specific and locally defined views of identity and community that recognize differences among and within marginalized groups.
Five Principles of Development Journalism
Shah (1996) has summarized development journalism as comprising the following five principles. The first three are related to the practice of reporting and writing while the last two concern the role of journalists themselves.
- Development journalism is concerned with social, cultural and political aspects of development, not just the economic. Development journalism promotes and contributes to humane development, which focuses on helping people meet their basic needs, empowering people to articulate their concerns and manage their development, and ameliorating poverty and inequality.
- Development journalism is democratic and emphasizes communication from the “bottom up.” Bottom-up reporting results in news that includes the voices and perspectives of people most adversely effected by modernization. By prioritizing the views of people at the grass-roots level, development journalism allows them access to mass audiences and policy makers.
- Development journalism is both pragmatic and unconventional in its approach to reporting. While traditional journalism reports facts perceived to be true and makes a conscious effort to remain detached from the subject of the story, development journalism makes explicit efforts to promote reform and encourage social action.
- Development journalists take on the role of professional intellectuals, providing energy for social movements and helping create awareness about the need for action. Journalists can help “articulate the concerns of emergent forms of protest, putting them into broader frameworks,” and showing their “deeper meaning and significance.”
- Development journalists encourage the production of development journalism at multiple sites, both geographically and within the overall structure of the news industry. The global concentration of ownership in the media industry has left little space for cultural products that question the status quo, and even less space for material that forcefully advocates even limited structural change. Thus development journalists should advocate for “both the development of alternative, usually localized, media and a critical monitoring, intervention in, and sometimes use of mainstream media.
Development Journalism and Public Journalism
Finally, it should be noted that development journalism is similar to the public journalism approaches to reporting developed in the United States in the 1990s by academics and journalists concerned with a crisis of media and democracy. Gunaratne (1996) perceptively pointed out that public journalism advocates typically refused to acknowledge the similarities of their model of reporting to the conception of development journalism. Nevertheless, the similarities between development journalism, born in the south at a precarious moment when many newly independent countries struggled to establish democratic, accountable governmental institutions, and public journalism, born in the west at a precarious moment when people were losing confidence in the media and other democratic institutions, reveal that all democracies are inherently unstable and that journalism assumes a key role in creating and maintaining democratically accountable government that is legitimate in the eyes of citizens.
- Aggarwala, N. (1980). A new journalism. Intermedia, 8, 26 –27.
- Calhoun, C. (1993). New social movements. Social Science History, 17, 385 – 427.
- Christians, C., Ferré, J. P., & Fackler, P. M. (1993). Good news: Social ethics and the press. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Commission on the Freedom of the Press (1947). A free and responsible press. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Domatob, J. K., & Hall, S. W. (1983). Development journalism in Black Africa. Gazette, 31, 9–33.
- Golding, P. (1974). Media role in national development: Critique of a theoretical orthodoxy. Journal of Communication, 24, 39–53.
- Gunaratne, S. (1996). Old wine in a new bottle: Public journalism movement in the United States and the erstwhile NWICO debate. AsiaPacific Media Educator, 1, 64 –75.
- Hachten, W. (1993). The growth of media in the third world: African failures, Asian successes. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
- McQuail, D. (1987). Mass communication theory. London: Sage.
- Shah, H. (1996). Modernization, marginalization, and emancipation: Toward a normative model for journalism and national development. Communication Theory, 6, 143–166.
- Stevenson, R. L. (1988). Communication, development, and the third world: The global politics of information. New York: Longman.
- Sussman, L. (1978). Developmental journalism: The ideological factor. In P. C. Horton (ed.), The third world and press freedom. New York: Praeger, pp. 74 – 92.
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