Can the media help end global poverty?

When United Nations member countries agreed in 2000 to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including to cut global poverty in half by 2015, the emphasis was on national and international policies to address the problems of the poor. Unfortunately, at the half way point it looks like many of the MDGs won't be met, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

How can we make governments more responsive to global poverty? According to Panos London, one answer is to improve media coverage of global poverty erradication efforts. In a new report titled, "Making Poverty the Story," Panos London argues that policy change stems from shifts in public and political opinion, and the mass media has an important role to play in raising public awareness about global poverty.

The authors, which surveyed both media and civil society organizations, offer an honest appraisal of the media's limitations in covering issues related to poverty: "One major constraint noted is the pressures of commercial survival and growth in the wake of recent media liberalisation." The other is the structural problems of having fewer reporters covering international beats, and thus not developing the expertise to go deeper into stories. "Journalists may lack the knowledge and practical skills to gather and decipher the growing range of information and analysis on poverty reduction issues."

A great example of what a dedicated and informed reporter can do to illucidate poverty issues is Celia Dugger at the New York Times. Her December 2 story covered Malawi's decision to ignore the World Bank's recommendations and start subsidizing fertilizer, and the resulting dramatic increases in corn production and hunger reduction in the country. The story helped to both explain poverty in many countries and point toward solutions at the same time. And her series of articles on the U.S. food aid system has undoubtedly raised awareness on the program's many shortcomings.

The Panos report also cites the opportunity for civil society organizations working to address poverty to interact better with the media. Unfortunately in the U.S., only a handful of newspapers have foreign correspondants, and even fewer in poor countries.

In Minneapolis, where IATP is based, the Star Tribune recently announced it would focus mostly on local reporting - relying primarily on wire services for national and international news. The good news is that a number of non-profit news services have emerged, including MinnPost, in an effort to fill the void of declining news coverage. Perhaps other new media organizations will emerge to help us learn about solutions to global poverty.