Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

MEDIA-LATIN AMERICA: Poverty – Not a Pressing Issue for the Press

Ángel Páez

BOGOTA, Jun 19 2006 (IPS) - The fight against poverty, which calls for a multipronged effort against hunger, inequality, and social marginalisation, is a pressing issue in Latin America. But it is apparently not for the press. In Colombia, where roughly half of the population lives in poverty, the only nationwide newspaper, El Tiempo, dedicates just 0.8 percent of its coverage to the issue.

These figures were obtained in a study commissioned by the newspaper itself, which was coordinated by the paper’s former readers’ ombudsman Germán Rey.

The study was carried out in 2003, but the results still hold good today. And according to Rey, the same situation can be seen in most newspapers throughout Latin America.

“When news items on poverty are published, 70 percent appear in an isolated fashion, and usually in the section on the economy,” said Rey in the Jun. 15-16 workshop “Sifting Through the News: Poverty, Development and the Environment. The Millennium Development Goals in Newspaper Coverage in the Andean Region”, which brought together journalists from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

The workshop, which was organised by the international news agency IPS (Inter Press Service) with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), was aimed at raising awareness among journalists and the media on the importance of reporting on development and poverty issues.

Furthermore, “Nearly all of the news coverage is based on statements from government officials or experts with organisations active on that front. The poor as actors have practically disappeared. As a result, we do not even have real information, but merely the opinions of experts. The press does not go out to look for the poor,” said Rey.

“The real protagonists are ignored, and in most cases, journalists’ reports are based on what one single source has to say,” he added.

“In fact, more news items are published on the poor in other countries than on the poor at home,” said Rey.

In the rest of the Andean region, the poor make up nearly 40 percent of the population in Venezuela, 49 percent in Peru, 61 percent in Ecuador and 67 percent in Bolivia, according to official figures contained in documents distributed at the workshop to evaluate each country’s progress towards compliance with the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2000.

Is it possible to draw the media’s sustained attention to poverty-related issues? UNDP expert Fernando Herrera believes that it is, and said that a good starting-point would be to provide accurate information to journalists on the magnitude and impact of the problem.

In Colombia, for example, the UNDP offers an on-line workshop to local reporters.

The first MDG is to halve the proportion of people living in hunger and poverty in the world by 2015, from 1990 levels.

To reach that goal, not only governments and non-governmental organisations must take part in the effort, but also the private sector, which includes the media, said Herrera. That means the press cannot turn a blind eye to the phenomenon of poverty, he said.

“It is the responsibility of the press to follow up on the advances made, as well as the setbacks,” said Herrera. “You must verify whether or not the statistics reflect the way things really are.”

But the press must also report on the criticisms voiced by civil society with regard to how the international community plans to fight poverty, and on the way the MDGs themselves were formulated.

“We believe that compliance with the MDGs will not eradicate poverty, because its origin is not economic, but political and ideological. Poverty will end when the poor are recognised as people with rights,” said Alberto Yepes, the coordinator of the “No Excuses 2015: Colombia Without Poverty” campaign.

The activist also represents the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP), a worldwide alliance of non-governmental organisations and social movements that is calling on world leaders to fulfill their commitments on trade justice, more and better aid and full debt cancellation. It is also demanding transparency and accountability from all governments in their plans to eliminate poverty and reach the MDGs.

“The MDGs don’t question market- and profit-based development models,” said Yepes. “Poverty reduction is not achieved merely by increasing gross domestic product.”

“The press highlights the impressive results in growth of exports and foreign investment, but the fact that inequality is the same as before, or worse, is never news,” he added.

A few great reporters have focused on the questions of poverty and marginalisation. But not many have followed in their shoes.

Jimmy Breslin, a leading exponent of the “New Journalism” in the United States, published in 2002 the book “The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez”, the story of a young Mexican migrant who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border on foot in search of “The American Dream”.

Gutiérrez drowned in a vat of concrete in an accident on a construction site in New York City. Breslin tracked the dangerous journey the 18-year-old took from his village of San Matías, Mexico to the job he found as a construction worker in New York.

Through Gutiérrez’s story, Breslin provided an exposé of the exploitation suffered by undocumented Latin American workers in the United States.

Another internationally renowned reporter, Ryszard Kapuscinski from Poland, writes about hard-hitting issues like war, extreme poverty, and corruption. To do so, however, he turns not to government officials, experts, NGOs or military chiefs, but to the very people who suffer the effects of these phenomena themselves.

Kapuscinski stresses that reporters must learn to be humble and to talk to people about their problems.

By contrast, noted Rey, economists are the chief sources consulted by El Tiempo journalists. According to his study, 95 percent of the newspaper’s meagre coverage on poverty-related issues was strictly focused on economics.

A journalist does not have to be a Breslin or Kapuscinski to provide quality reporting on issues like poverty, the environment or human rights.

But first it is necessary to know what poverty is, which economist Alfredo Sarmiento, director of Colombia’s National Human Development Programme (PNDH), took upon himself to explain at the workshop.

Sarmiento summed up the definitions of poverty, as linked to economic growth and development, of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. But, he told the participating journalists, “poverty is not only a problem of income, and should not be measured as such.”

Some international bodies, he said, use strictly income-based definitions of poverty, in order to project an image of success in fighting the problem.

But, said Sarmiento, poverty is linked to the cultural perceptions and the material possibilities of a specific society in a given era. And it is multidimensional, involving the denial of social, economic and political rights, as Indian economist and Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen has emphasised.

This current of thought took shape in the UNDP’s Human Development Index, which was the first attempt to encompass these various dimensions, taking into account life expectancy, educational level and income.

Sarmiento also mentioned the Living Conditions Index used in Colombia, which considers poverty as the failure to achieve “socially desirable and materially possible conditions.”

“Poverty levels cannot be determined merely on the basis of lower incomes or fewer possessions,” said the economist. “The definition must also consider whether someone is subjected to unacceptable deprivation or to social exclusion.”

He quoted former South African president Nelson Mandela: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Sarmiento said poverty is also an expression of an unjust international economic order, based on trade relations that favour rich countries.

And he pointed out that while the global defence budget amounts to 800 billion dollars a year, only 16 billion would be needed to feed the world’s hungry children.

“These inequalities should be news,” said Sarmiento. “It should be reported that national development does not favour the poorest regions, and that bank loans, property and social security are not equitable.”

“In other words, it should be reported that there is no ethical economic development, because the poor are excluded from growth,” he argued

Putting these issues on the media agenda also has to do with the training received by journalists and editors.

“The media have put a lot of thought into redesigning their presentation and graphics, but have neglected to redesign their content. News coverage is merely reactive,” said Rey.

“It is not ethical to ignore the big issues of poverty and inequality, and we have realised that,” he said, before quoting Colombian author and Nobel Literature laureate Gabriel García Márquez: “Journalism has overlooked the world.”

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