UK television and the developing world

As part of its UK Public Opinion Monitor research, which aims to track the UK public’s attitudes towards development, the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex recently released this 10-minute film pleading for better coverage by UK television of the developing world, and of issues related to poverty:

The film revisits arguments advanced over many years by the International Broadcasting Trust (IBT), One World Media (formerly the One World Broadcasting Trust), POLIS, and other civil society groups. [Five years ago, I wrote and researched IBT’s report, Reflecting the Real World 2, on how new media were impacting on UK TV’s coverage of the developing world.] These groups have consistently put forward the arguments – based on research they conduct and commission, and on interviews they conduct with senior decision-makers in the UK media – that coverage of the developing world by UK broadcast television is weak, and tends to focus on crisis, corruption, and conflict, in both news and other TV genres. They argue that this has serious implications both on how genuinely informed the UK public can be about large swathes of the wider world, and therefore on how constructive domestic public debate and opinion can be about why we give aid, to whom, and on what basis.

It’s encouraging that a serious institution like IDS is interested in addressing these issues. So why does the film itself leave me so disappointed – and what might they have done differently?

Foregrounding old ideas and media, burying the new…
Given the film is on YouTube (with around 2000 views), I find it bizarre that it’s not till the eighth minute of this ten-minute film that an interviewee mentions the internet, whether in relation to how UK audiences seek, access and encounter information about the wider world, or how people around the world increasingly have the means and networks to document and display the world as they see and experience it. Nobody really mentions mobile devices at all in the final film – and the film also omits the huge growth in online video served by newspapers.

Although television remains a hugely influential medium, it’s surreal not to acknowledge that media consumption habits, access to information and ability to connect across borders have transformed (for many) beyond all recognition. Expectations of how to engage citizens in factual content are also slowly changing – and media organisations do get this, sometimes. In the longer individual interviews (<200 views each), these transformations are a stronger theme – Charlie Beckett talking about networked journalism, Richard Sambrook on the pressure of competition and choice in a multiplatform world, Jon Snow explaining how mobile phone footage built Channel 4 News’ expose of Sri Lankan atrocities, Richard Kavuma about his involvement in the Guardian’s Katine project – but the really interesting bits don’t make the cut.

Choice of interviewees
While these and the other interviewees represent a reasonable diversity of perspectives from broadcast TV and civil society, I’d like to have seen some slightly newer voices and more expansive choices. What about a grittier, globalised perspective like that of Paul Mason? Or someone from Al Jazeera International, or from Dispatches or Unreported World? The head of an independent production company, or a commissioning editor, perhaps, or a member of the BBC Trust? How about a policy-maker or funder, like DfID, or the Gates Foundation – or the FCO even? A YouTube or Vimeo representative? And what about some TV viewers?

Assertions and omissions, but no facts or figures
Surprisingly, not one study or statistic about actual UK TV coverage of the developing world was cited in the entire piece. No visualisations or interstitials with statistics, no compare and contrast with social media, no breakdown of TV genres. Some of this stuff is out there. Without this kind of underpinning or scaffolding, it’s difficult to see what the piece is specifically taking aim at (unlike, for example, this Guardian piece and associated Sound Women critique of the lack of women’s voices on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme). TV schedules are available through APIs – and the BBC’s programme listings use an ontology that breaks programme content into, among other items, places. It can’t be that hard to come up with some relatively useful indications using even a week of this kind of data, can it? (Please let me know if someone’s already done this…)

Did I dream Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain…?
There was a spectacular amount of high-profile news, current affairs and factual coverage of the Middle East and North Africa during 2011, much of it anchored with cellphone eyewitness footage, first-person testimony, activist/bloggers, and civil society information. Not one of the interviewees mentions the Arab Spring (although Caroline Nursey does mention a BBC World Service Trust project in southern Iraq). Is it because this wasn’t “good news about development”? (Although it was often about democratisation, empowerment, human rights, and good governance…)

What might better coverage look like?
The film focuses on the need for more “positive” images, “good news about development” or “success stories”. It would have served the film better to offer concrete recommendations or specific alternatives, even in an accompanying one-pager: “Here are five things channel heads can do today to make things better”, for example. Deborah Doane does offer some concrete ideas – greater collaboration between journalists and NGOs to find new, more compelling angles, for example, or making more explicit links between economic austerity stories at home and abroad – and Charlie Beckett talks about the need for editorial innovation, and how and whether journalists might tell more complex stories. But In the end, I don’t get a strong picture of what this “better coverage” might involve (or indeed who this film is for). More productive and professionally-resonant lines of critique could have focused on why coverage is not more accurate, or diverse, or fair, or balanced.

The relationship between civil society and news
It’s refreshing in this context to hear Charlie Beckett mention the role played by NGO PR teams in perpetuating some of the weak coverage – but no one mentions the increasing role played by NGO workers in actual direct provision of quality information, especially in places where journalists have limited or no access. Civil society itself has a conflicted, sometimes contradictory relationship with news and media – it might have been worth mining this discussion series for potential interviewees too.

Mixed messaging
Finally, a stylistic point. For a year in which eyewitness, citizen video has never been more prominent in the news media, it’s peculiar not to see any illustrative video footage at all, whether from news organisations, or from online producers.

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