In 1914 – long before television, the internet and the 24 hour news cycle – Uruguayan writer José Enrique Rodó published an essay entitled How a Newspaper Should Be. He began by stating:
´´Rather than an isolated activity within the range of social activities, the function of journalism should be conceived as a collection of all functions that, materially or morally, interest the social organism. There has never been an institution in the world so entirely identified with society´s complex development as, in our era, the institution of the journalistic press.´´
In 2010, I spent some time in Potosí, Bolivia. While there I interviewed mining families and worked as a third class miner for two days. Potosí´s story altered my perception of the world – it should perhaps be for socioeconomics what Easter Island´s story is for sustainability. Yet, a survey of the major Australian and international media outlets over the past five years revealed that Potosí was only mentioned in the context of violent strikes, in relation to the stock performance of some Japanese and Canadian mining companies and in a handful of travel pieces. The minerals of Potosí have travelled the world, but rarely have they been accompanied by her rich vein of stories.
So if Potosí – famed in literature, once one of greatest cities in the world and now a popular stop on a growing tourist route – has such a muffled voice, what then of the three and a half billion voices living in the world´s rural areas that don’t have historical prominence? For the most part, they are unheard. There´s a kind of colonialism of voice, a north-south divide, whereby the poor and the rural just provide the raw materials – never the subject or teller of the story, merely the ink it is written with.
There are vastly more poor voices than wealthy, and as many rural voices as urban, so why are they so under-represented? Firstly, reporting tends to be events-based rather than issue-based, and statement-based rather than informed via the meeting of people and direct experience of situations, which leads to superficial coverage that fails to capture the full story within its wider context. This characterisation of reporting is becoming a greater truth as media faces immense and growing commercial and competitive pressures, including a drive for efficiency that could rarely justify the resources required to tell the stories of the rural poor. More and more information is generated and distributed from a central hub, this despite immense advances in communication technologies that would allow a reversal of this system – hearing voices from their source.
Rarely do we see poverty´s human face, discussion of why it exists or possible solutions; instead, we receive an exhibition of its most ´newsworthy´ symptoms. Whether media fails society or society fails the media is a bit like discussing whether junk food is the fault of the producer or the consumer – essentially they feed on each other. It is both the mouth and the ear that create silence. Regardless, stories must compete ever ruthlessly for newsworthiness and attention. Superficial, sensational and confrontational politics, sport, glamour and gossip outsell stories of the poor. Poverty is such an everyday reality and so widespread it is not deemed newsworthy, but surely its omnipresence makes it a bigger factor in our lives and therefore more worthy of our understanding?
A growing lack of resources and a creeping cultural change in journalism, in part caused by increasing commercialism, has led many media outlets to follow the official agenda rather than attempting shape it. This inevitably leads to inadequate exposure of the relevance of the poor within the ´´core beats´´ of journalism, such as finance and politics.
And finally, most media is produced in urban areas and targets the urban elite. Though the increasingly privatised share of the media landscape exacerbates this, state-run media is also guilty in this regard. This issue is of course compounded by a lack of access to technology and literacy in poor rural areas.
Who cares, you might ask? In 2005 Gallup International conducted an opinion poll (known as Voice of the People). It took in 68 countries and revealed that poverty is the greatest humanitarian issue of our time: one quarter of respondents were concerned about it, compared to one in every ten who were concerned about terrorism, conflict and wars. Yet, from the media one would assume the reverse.
There are many moral arguments that support amplification of the voices of the poor and their everyday, such as the right to be heard and an underpinning imperative to strive toward equality. However, purely moral arguments often become frustrated spectators shouting from the stands, so it is perhaps better to speak of social progress.
Greater interconnectedness requires greater communication between all parts. With the emergence of a truly globalised economy – in which a decision in one part of the globe has significant impacts in another – comes the need for more globalised communication. Inclusive communication contributes to peace-building and mutual understanding by allowing the values, attitudes, beliefs and culture of other peoples to be propagated and understood. Even with regard to basic human nature, everyone wants to be heard – it eases pain and anger, motivates and promotes tolerance.
Traditional economic theory argues that as poor places develop people become more affluent and poverty disappears. But development requires a high level of communicative interaction and is generally born of the sharing of information and knowledge. To limit communication is to limit development.
Politicians and influencers must be able to hear from the people their decisions affect. Increasingly the impact of their decisions is not contained within their nation´s borders. Democracy requires comprehensive and representative information and our media should provide it. Without as holistic a view of reality as possible views are uninformed and democracy suffers. The dispersal and sheer reach of the media make them the primary force in raising awareness, debate and action. Whether they have an obligation or not the media are key drivers of change.
Fundamental to the amplification of muffled voices is journalistic media, both what we demand of it and what it demands of itself. The media has four core functions: communicating and informing; analysis and commentary; providing a platform for debate and an open forum for different public views and voices; and scrutiny (the holding of actors to account). All four functions can provide voices for the poor and the everyday.
At the core of media is ´public interest´ and ´public service´ journalism – an essential part of creating an informed, inclusive public debate that ensures genuine citizenship, democratic participation and responsive governance. The Panos Report – Making Poverty the Story argues that particularly these forms of journalism should be viewed as ´public goods´- goods that benefit all members of society – like peace, clean air, education or judicial systems.
Journalists, regardless of whether they are public service or commercial, or whether they work for Potosí´s local paper or CNN, have a code of ethics, recognising their immense influence and responsibility. The code is similar the world over.
The opening section of the Australian Journalists Association Code of Ethics establishes that “respect for the truth and the public´s right to know are overriding principles for all journalists” and that “all members of the Association engaged in gathering, transmitting, disseminating and commenting on news and information” shall observe the Code of Ethics. The first two rules of the Code stipulate that journalists shall:
1) report and interpret the news with scrupulous honesty by striving to disclose all essential facts and by not suppressing relevant, available facts or by distorting by wrong or improper emphasis.
2) not place unnecessary emphasis on gender, race, sexual preference, religious belief, marital status or physical or mental disability.
Perhaps the Code is considered at the micro level and not enough at the macro, for surely within our media there is ´improper emphasis´ on the wealthy and the urban. If so, the emphasis of certain races, cultures and religious groups – often partly defined by rural/urban or wealthy/poor divides – inherently follows. Does this improper emphasis not ´distort´ our perception of reality and do the media strive hard enough to ´disclose all essential facts´, such as those recognised by the world´s rural poor?
News media is more than a reporter; it is commenter, censor and propagandist. Some argue, such as Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, we should give priority to voice and knowledge born in struggle. Bias in order to redress imbalance or injustice is admirable, but many journalists argue that their greatest responsibility must be impartiality and as such it is not the mandate of the journalist to act in the interests of rural poor. However, nor is it their mandate to act in the interests of the urban elite.
To most Australians in this day and age mining is associated with wealth and economic boom. Those working in mining are considered the lucky ones, often earning considerably more than people doing similar work in other fields. A few months after working with the third class miners in Potosí, I visited a mine in Rosebery on the west coast of Tasmania, to compare the life of an Australian miner with that of a Bolivian. Both communities are close-knit and proud and have miners who are at least fourth generation. The two mines produce approximately one million tonnes a year of a similar mix of minerals, but that´s where the similarities end.
There are fifteen thousand miners working in Potosí, compared to less than four hundred in Rosebery – ratio of 28 to one. In Rosebery, men don´t huddle metres away from dynamite explosions, sophisticated engineering goes into each blast and no one is below ground when they occur. Miners in Potosí work for 12 hours without food, whilst miners in Rosebery have meal breaks in comfortable and well-stocked canteens.
In Rosebery, the lowest salary is around eighty thousand dollars a year with wages and working conditions well protected. In Potosí, wages – like fine rock dust – hover just above the shifting floor of global mineral prices. Given their average life span, a miner in Potosí would need to start working full time at the age of twelve to earn Rosebery´s lowest annual salary in a life time. Put another way, an hour of safe work in a Tasmanian mine is worth almost a week of dangerous work in a Bolivian mine.
The cost of living is not relative. In Australia, a miner can quickly set themselves up for a financially secure life. In Bolivia, miners can work from childhood and still struggle to pay for their children´s upbringing and education, before their lungs turn to stone and they leave their family fatherless and without its primary income. Often they can´t even afford a grave in the local cemetery. The average life span of a miner in Rosebery is 78 years of age, in Potosí it is 38.
What then do we Australians understand when we see a strike of Potosí´s miners in the news without some historical and political context, and without a vision into daily life: routine, hopes, fears, working conditions and salaries, the perceptions of those caught up in the story? Billions are spent trying to get us to consume the media’s produce, but little is spent trying to help us understand it.
The everyday, though not as sensational, is often the cause of the event or at the very least, it shapes reaction to it. An evolving constant providing the structure and context for everything else, the everyday is as much the sculptor of society as the event. Put simply, the event is only meaningful and accurately interpreted through the lens of everyday realities.
It is not only history that is written by the victors, so too is that small daily history, the ´journalistic press´. In order to realise a plural global society with its necessary diversity of knowledge and understanding, truth must be emancipated from its masters. Media, and how we use it, has huge influence over hearts and minds, yet many argue it should simply be a reflection of society. I would argue that it should also be society´s shadow, footprints, visions and senses. But if our media is to simply provide a reflection, a true mirror doesn´t discriminate, it reflects all – the everyday and the ´everyone´.
(This essay is adapted from a speech made at the World Congress of Rural Sociology 2012, in Lisbon, Portugal)
*Pic: Miner pushing cart in Potosí.