They were all featured in one way or another at what was for me an unusual awards ceremony in London earlier this month, a combination of top-end cocktail party and thought-provoking look at a few of the multitude of fascinating stories from the developing world British viewers are offered on a regular basis by their national media. The annual event is put on by One World Media, a non-profit that promotes and supports media coverage of, to put it broadly, developing world issues.
The Bengali Detective, from Native Voice films, is about a team of detectives, actually, who investigate crimes in Kolkata, and attempt to win a talent show with their Bollywood dancing. The model, Samira Hashi, took part in a documentary made by BBC Current Affairs, visiting a refugee camp in Somalia, from which her parents fled when she was a baby. And the tin miners were the subject of the winner of One World’s Press category, an article called Death Metal by The Guardian’s Kate Hodal.
For me, personally, the work of both nominees and winners, from journalism students to field-seasoned documentary producers, brought a mixture of admiration (for the dozens of examples of excellent reporting), jealousy (as I couldn’t help recall the many times my article ideas here were met with the ever irritating ‘but-what’s-the-Canadian-angle?’ response), curiosity (to know more about the many fascinating stories to which we in the audience were briefly introduced) and a recognition of the way our nations and cultures the world over are woven together in a vast web of strange, comic, tragic and compelling situations.
That we can only scratch the surface of these worlds through such stories about them is frustrating yet challenging. There is so much going on, so many characters — from Josephat Torner, an albino man in Tanzania who tries to counter the terrible superstitions that have lead to the murders of people with albinism, to former Afghan member of parliament Azita Rahfat, who decides dress one of her four daughters as a boy to gain social respect — and so many struggles in the world around us. Why would we not want to know about these things?
Yet in a recent podcast put out by the Center for Global Development in Washington, Nicolas Kristoff said he was “deeply concerned about the collapse in coverage of global news,” particularly in television.
“Your average news consumer is much less exposed to international stories, and those that they are exposed to are particular, segment stories,” he says. “It tends not to be development stories and I think this is going to be a real blind spot in the US and also, to some degree, globally.”
The contradiction here of course is that we are better able to access global stories and news more easily than ever. We are more avid than ever for information that should help us make better decisions socially and politically. Average people are more aware than ever that we live in an inter-connected world.
Yet national media are more convinced than ever, it sometimes seems to me, that domestic audiences are turned off by anything that is not local and trivial. It is easier to inform ourselves about the Kardashians than Kazakhstan, Kolkata or Cairo. We are encouraged to skim and peruse, to flip through pages, keep our brains on stand-by mode, rather than glue our attention to stories that are factual, compelling and meaningful.
One World Media and its annual awards go a long way to countering the inanity, just as their fellowships and student programs help younger journalists to both learn about and take on reporting in the developing world.
Like the super educated scientists who must spend their days working for Big Pharma searching for weight-loss remedies instead of a cure for malaria, I am sure that most smart journalists would rather be chasing unique and amazing real stories than providing free publicity to people who don’t need it. I have always believed that the whole point of being a journalist is to discover and write about the interesting aspects of reality, to be lucky enough to find curious stories that reveal more than first thought — like my article from Mexico about obligatory literature classes for beat officers to try to combat police corruption — and to give a voice, as many of the winners’ speeches noted, to the voiceless. It should be about explaining the world and shedding a light on its injustices as much as informing the public.
This is not the first time, I know, that I have written about this. But as can be seen in my earlier post ’From Underdogs to Watchdogs,’ a short article about Ayiti Kale Je, or Haiti Grassroots Watch, what One World Media also suggests is that independent, investigative journalism can also, in its own words, “contribute to international development worldwide.”
In a world where ignorance is a tool in the hands of governments, big corporations and the global elite in general, independent information is one of the few arms with which people can fight back. So there is a thread here that is not hard to follow. What we write and what we read, what we film and what we watch, all matter. How we support independent media in nations wracked with poverty, inequality and corrupt governments matters even more.