Developing media often simply not credible enough

Drew Sullivan

The chest beating about some of the issues in this debate is a little frustrating. African newspapers are much like those in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  Yes, there is a tendency to focus of “gotcha” journalism.  Yes,  there is a tendency toward ugly news, event-driven political coverage and other coverages of less interest to readers.  Yes, there is little technology, undeveloped advertising markets, government repression, untrained journalists and other problems. But, at the risk of becoming very unpopular on this list, all these media outlets suffer from a root problem:  an acute lack of credibility with readers.

A large number of editors are not setting standards necessary to build credibility with the public in many countries. It is worthless to use new technologies to enlarge your reach unless you succeed in dealing with this basic cornerstone of journalism: credibility.  Otherwise you just turn off a larger circle of readers.  I think we should all work hard — much harder than we are working — at building credibility.  And that starts with accuracy and fairness in every single story.
I work for the Centre for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia. We have the advantage of being an investigative organization so we have more time to deal with accuracy and fairness.  We have had less than ten corrections (most were minor and no major corrections) in five years of working in Bosnia. That’s one correction per reporter in five years.  I am proud of that. But to do that, reporters must turn in all documentation and interviews to a fact checker who takes almost a week to verify every fact and every quote.  I know ICIJ uses a similar technique and mandates footnotes on all facts with the source information.  If reporters have a regular problem with accuracy in their text at CIN, they are fired.  There is no excuse for accuracy problems in investigative reporting.  I am not saying we are great.  We constantly struggle with this problem on a daily basis and we don’t always have the time to do what we would like but we are conservative and eliminate things we can not verify from stories.
That’s the commitment we have made and its paying large dividends for us.  I think more investigative reporting organizations should use similar procedures.
Until news organizations in the developing world develop greater accuracy and greater fairness, they will only be marginally successful and people will continue to ignore them. I blame developing world editors who often fail to set, promote and uphold standards.  These newspapers could change overnight if editors set standards and upheld them — standards designed to raise credibility.  If readers don’t believe you, they won’t be readers very long.  Having done a dozen focus groups and surveys throughout the world, I can say readers are saying this loudly and clearly and too many editors are ignoring them.
Now development organizations are spending hundreds of millions to promote technology in the developing world.  But it doesn’t matter if we use blogs, tweets, web pages or any other new technology that is buzzy, if the news is wrong then the tweet is wrong.  We need to get back to basics.

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