Media will not be pro-poor unless they prioritise local poverty reduction issues and take ownership of the programmes
Investigative journalism can be an effective means to reduce poverty if it is embedded as an integral part of the media industry. Yet, the woes ofÂ the marginalised are often sidelined in favour of more-striking political newsâ€”intense competition and pressure to perform well financially pushes media companies to prioritise attention-grabbing news like politics.
While conducting a survey, it was revealed that in nine districts, 73 percent of farmers cited local radio as their first choice for information; 23 percent cited TV while the remaining chose other channels: SMS, print media and internet. Despite the prominence of local FM radio, its reach has been ineffective, particularly to the rural poor. Only 12 percent of farmers were regular listeners to agricultural radio programmes, although 87 percent have an interest in them. An appraisal of the quality of 20 agricultural programmes showed that two-thirds of the listenersâ€”highly influenced by the agenda of the advertisers and sponsorsâ€”scored the standard of journalism very poorly (below 25 percent). Over 80 percent of the radio programmes had no audience participation, and a majority of the programmes only had duration of 15 minutes or less.
One of the major constraints is the pressure of commercial survival and growth in the wake of the recent media liberalisation. Because licenses have been granted by the government without due diligence, the entire industry has reached a saturation point with around 700 stations in Nepal alone. In their pursuit to be cost-effective, stations have resorted to make studio-based programmes and have reduced their rates for advertisements dramaticallyâ€”some stations play 15 seconds advertisements for a price as low as Rs20.
With so many stations and no research on the audience, both the listeners and the advertisers have been confused. The need for advertising revenue has often compounded the pressure on editorial space, also making the media more prone to external commercial and political pressures of various kinds. Thus, in such a competitive scenario, poverty reduction subjects are unattractive.
Similarly, the structural problems of media finance affect working journalists, who are often under-skilled, poorly paid and precariously employed. Time and resource constraints limit funding of researches needed for stories on poverty reduction. In turn, journalists may lack the knowledge and practical skills to gather and disseminate the growing range of information and analysis on poverty reduction issues.
Ideally, corruption is challenged when media plays a social watchdogâ€™s role as opposed to being only a means of entertainment. When marginalised issues are brought into light and into the attention of mainstream media, the chances of those issues being addressed increase enormously. Conversely, for the media companies, it serves as a gateway to gain more popularity and credibility among the community, thereby increasing their chances to attract more sponsors. In this self-fulfilling cycle, the poor and the neglected have a greater Â opportunity to have their voices heard and issues sorted out while media companies garner more listenership and revenues. However, media companies are oblivious to this learning as most of them are overshadowed by the financial stress and their increasing hesitancy over the net return of their investments.
Another prevailing constraint paralysing the growth of investigative journalism has been the distortion of the market by the donors. Many donors still pour a hefty sum of money in the name of media development to run donor directed programmes that are least audience driven. At times, the donorsâ€™ involvement in capacity building and knowledge enhancement of the media companies is crucial; however, many a time their altruistic nature of engagement distorts the market rather than strengthening it. Programmes dedicated to agriculture and community development have a fixed lifespan when they are donor funded, and it is a rare case where the media companies themselves have taken ownership and continued the programmes beyond the lifespan of the donor projects. Media companies often view them as cash cows rather than embedding them as their strength in fostering community development, which on a higher ground is a vision for each media company.
Sustaining and scaling up field-based agricultural programmes means media companies immersing themselves and taking ownership of the programmes. Results have repeatedly shown that a follow-up on critical issues is equally or even more important to address them. Issues for farmers can be very diverse indeed. However, bringing them up can only be one side of the coin. It is important that those issues are followed up until a tangible gesture from the concerned stakeholders is seen. Media have proven to be a powerful medium to bring change in the market. But they will only prove to be pro-poor when they prioritise local poverty reduction issuesÂ and take complete ownership ofÂ the programmes rather than wait for donors to produce them.
By Manish Bikram Shah
The writer is a media sector analyst at Samarth, a rural market development programme.