International Development and the Media
Key take-home messages from an honest and open discussion at Holyrood.
Last week, the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group (CPG) on International Development came together for a discussion about the role of media and perceptions of international development in Scotland.
It is not often that the media is the focus of any CPG meeting at Holyrood, and CPG Deputy-convenor Patrick Harvie MSP welcomed the “refreshingly honest discussion” that resulted.
The group welcomed leading figures from the sector in Scotland – Jamie Livingstone, Head of Oxfam Scotland, and Sally Foster-Fulton, Head of Christian Aid Scotland – and also two media experts – Susan Dalgety, freelance journalist and former chief press officer for Jack McConnell, and Daniel Maxwell, Editor of politics and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland and Executive Editor of BBC1’s Question Time.
Each speaker brought a unique perspective to the discussion, while other experts and stakeholders also offered important insights and practical advice. We have summarised the discussion into 4 key parts:
Finding the right message
Our sector has a challenge when it comes to finding the right messaging to communicate what are often complex problems that require complex solutions. What we communicate must therefore encourage understanding of global issues on the one hand, while remaining grounded in peoples' lived experience on the other. Sally-Foster Fulton emphasised the need for positive messaging from the international development sector – talking about ‘global prosperity’ not simply ‘eradicating poverty’. She advocates promoting individuals behind the statistics to humanise our work, while contextualising the systemic barriers to development.
Telling your story - people to people
For the media in all its forms, stories are vital. Susan Dalgety highlighted this as she recalled her experience of engaging the media about Malawi, by taking a group of Journalists to visit the country during her time as Head of International Communications for the Scottish Government in 2005. Getting journalists to see, feel and hear for themselves is worthwhile in her opinion.
Ultimately, finding connections and a way to tell a story through people and about people helps to build support and interest. Simple stories about people and the impact on their lives is ultimately what wins public attention. But, rapidly changing mobile phone technology and increased access to it must not be overlooked. For Susan and others, this technology can be the single most important tool to help tell those stories, whether by beneficiaries of development, frontline workers or otherwise.
Building partnerships in a changing media landscape
Different demographic and socio-economic groups tend to care about different things and consume media in different ways. Daniel Maxwell highlighted this as he explained that while the average age of BBC TV news audiences is 50+, the majority of under-18s do not watch TV at all, and use social media in completely different ways to other generations. Our sector must be mindful of this changing landscape, and focus on all forms of media, including mainstream.
Daniel and others also emphasised the need to develop open and honest working relationships with the media. It is important to go against the instinct to retrench when coverage is minimal or negative, and focus on building long-term relationships with journalists and other media representatives. The sector must also accept that news broadcasters will generally have their own set of guidelines that may clash with that of the sector.
Rebuilding trust & transparency together
Public trust in the work of the international development sector has been put in serious jeopardy following a wave of disclosures about sexual misconduct and highly critical media coverage. Alongside transparent measures to improve safeguarding, the sector must proactively boost public confidence and understanding in its work.
Jamie Livingstone, with a ‘foot in two camps’ as Head of Oxfam Scotland and a former print and broadcast journalist, was well placed to give insight into how this must be done. He emphasised that even though we are a diverse sector with many competing voices and interests, the sector must, now than ever before, work together and find ways to tell our stories more, and better, to showcase the work and the people behind our organisational brands.
We must keep the conversation going and work together. There are upcoming events and discussion forums where this can happen. At the Alliance, we are here to broker connections whenever we can.
Dr Kate Wright, from the University of Edinburgh, also present at the meeting, shared that she has conducted research into journalists' use of photos, video and audio provided by NGOs in the news coverage of Africa. She is happy to present this research to Alliance members. Watch this space!
She'll also have available the findings of a global study of humanitarian journalism, and how this overlaps with development journalism, and is working with the Alliance to host a Humanitarian #MeToo event in the autumn.
Another expert, Huw Owen, ex-BBC producer and current head of external relations for the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) in Scotland was keen to offer his insight. With over 20 years working at the BBC, he feels he is well placed to set up further discussions that help the sector build lasting relationships with the media in Scotland.
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