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How to counter 'poverty fatigue' when covering development and health

How to counter 'poverty fatigue' when covering development and health

IJNet | May 21, 2014

Journalists and media organizations in Africa often shy away from development stories, such as those on health and social justice, and instead opt to cover politics.

Rebecca Davis, of South African daily online newspaper Daily Maverick, says African news organizations “feel [development] stories are boring or [that readers] have ‘poverty fatigue.' ”

But journalists like Davis are working to change that. Last month, Davis’ story “Coughing up for Gold,” which looked at the toll that mining has taken on the health of former South African mine workers, emerged the winner of a continent-wide reporting contest, the African Story Challenge. For her work, Davis wins an international reporting trip.

The African Story Challenge is a project of the African Media Initiative (AMI), the continent’s largest association of media owners and operators, in partnership with the International Center for Journalists. Joseph Warungu, AMI’s content strategies director, developed the challenge during his ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellowship. Story ideas are selected to receive grants of up to US$20,000 to support journalists in producing comprehensive multimedia stories in three categories that are organized in cycles – agriculture and food security, disease prevention and treatment, and business and technology. Davis won in the disease prevention and treatment category.

“The African Story Challenge reminded me of the importance of Africans telling their own stories,” Davis said in an interview about the making of “Coughing up for Gold.” She urged journalists to "always put a human face at the center of the story, and that’s how you draw your audience, no matter how dry the subject matter may seem at the outset.”

More of her interview is published below with permission from the African Story Challenge:

African Story Challenge: How would you describe your experience as an African Story Challenge Finalist and Winner?

RD: The African Story Challenge has been a priceless opportunity for me. The training I received during the Story Camp in Lagos was particularly useful as I learned a lot on data journalism. Now I have some of the skills to make my own graphics. I work for a news organization that doesn’t have a lot of resources so anything we can do ourselves, we do. Above all, the financial support was invaluable. In this day and age, few organizations have the time or money to do such in-depth investigative reports. If we hadn’t received this grant from the African Media Initiative, we would not have been able to do this story.

ASC: You had six weeks to produce “Coughing up for Gold." How did you go about it?

RD: In doing “Coughing up for Gold," I wanted to look at the complex issue of silicosis amongst former miners whose plight has been neglected by government and other industry players. Silicosis has everything: it’s politics, money, race, sort of South Africa in a microcosm, and that’s why I found it such a fascinating issue. My cameraman, fixer and I travelled to the Eastern Cape, sometimes for many kilometers in very remote areas and into the mountains to find these ex-miners. We found them sick, and living in conditions of heartbreaking poverty. They couldn’t work due to the disease, and if they had been paid compensation, it was too little. They were welcoming and willing to talk to us, and it was quite humbling to experience their hospitality considering the hardship of their living conditions.

It was very hard to get access to the mines themselves, but at short notice, we were able to visit Sibanye Gold, one of the biggest gold producers. We wanted to get a general feel of what mining conditions are like. We were able to speak to top mining officials there who obviously gave us a sanitized version, but it was still interesting to hear what the mines had to say about the situation. We carried out other interviews with mining experts from the chamber of mines and other officials who didn’t want to go on the record, who gave us interesting insights into exactly what the industry knows about the problem and what they are doing about it.

One of our biggest coups in doing the project was finding two health experts attached to the national institute of occupational health, Dr. Jill Murray and Dr. Tony Davis who gave us an interview. They had been carrying out autopsies on former miners for years and years and were in the best position to cut through the PR waffle from the mines because they are the ones looking at the lungs of the miners, and can show you the graphs of how incidences of Silicosis and TB are rising year after year. Every journalist should be so lucky to find such knowledgeable interview subjects who aren’t scared, and are willing to talk at length and explain the subject to a layman.

We finished off by interviewing the lawyers who’d been involved in taking up the compensation cases for a legal perspective.

ASC: What has been the feedback from the story?

RD: The feedback has been quite positive, even from people within the mining industry. We’ve had a couple of people come forward to say that though the story was hard hitting, it was essentially valid. The lawyers for the miners have asked to use part of the project, such as the videos, in their own documentation, which was quite heartening. I hope it can be of use to them in the fight for compensation.

In general, a lot of people said that although they were aware the issue of silicosis existed, they hadn’t seen it in such a comprehensive package before, and “Coughing up for Gold” managed to inform them in that way, and that has been an incredibly worthwhile thing.

The African Story Challenge reminded me of the importance of Africans telling their own stories. A lot of journalists and media organizations shy away from development stories and particularly those on health and social justice because they feel these stories are boring or have “poverty fatigue”. Part of what I’ve learnt from the African Story Challenge journey is to always put a human face at the center of the story, and that’s how you draw your audience, no matter how dry the subject matter may seem at the outset.

Image: Rebecca Davis receives the award trophy from Dr. Anil Deelchand, Ag. Director of General Health Services in the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life, Republic of Mauritius.

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