The Stories We're Missing

What’s Newsworthy?


You’re getting this on a Wednesday because we mentioned on Saturday that we’d be trying out other forms of content. This is one of them; A weekly deep dive into a topic in African Business or Politics.

The format of this differs slightly from our Saturday newsletter. It’s longer, more personal, and opinionated.

Why this?

Apart from the fact that a few subscribers have asked for this, it also hurts that many of our good essays have to be shortened due to the concise nature of the weekly newsletters.

Also, It’d be ridiculous, however, to think I could ever know more than the hundreds of subscribers reading this. So, if you disagree or have a complementary opinion, please send them as a reply to this email or comment on the web version of this post. I’d be happy to learn more.

Now to today’s story.

From Solutions Journalism Network

As uprisings against police brutality happen, opponents often ask the question, "Why don't they handle the problems in their own community first?" Well, they do. They're doing it on shoestring budgets, with no celebrities or social media campaigns.

Most journalists just don't cover it.

We all know what brings journalists to Black and brown neighborhoods: crime. That means many people who don't live in those neighborhoods think that's all that happens there. When journalists neglect the progress and solutions in historically oppressed, marginalized, and otherwise systemically harmed communities, we aren't just "missing a story." We are misinforming people about those communities. That misinformation drives public sentiment which drives policies, which can harm those communities further.

But we harm them in another way too. What are people to think when we are there for their deaths and despair, but don't see their progress as "newsworthy" enough? Intentionally or not, we show what we value. We let them know that we just don't think we'd get enough eyes on their success story, but maybe our bills can get paid off the latest shooting.

There’s no longer any excuse (nor has there ever been) for journalists to exploit, demean, is and yes, harm Black and brown communities by devoting disproportionate coverage of them to "crime." Not without exploring the systemic issues that give rise to it and how those communities themselves are leading the way in addressing it.

If you're not a journalist, demand coverage that respects human agency and dignity. If you are a journalist guilty of the above, the time is now to begin a long process of settling your debts.

I found this essay fascinating because while it makes brilliant points, it also makes demands that don’t seem clear. For instance, how do I demand coverage that respects human agency and dignity? Do I just go about asking journalists to do better? Do journalists even believe they have debts to pay, or is it simply business?

Before I dive into that, here’s what I agree with. The stories we hear influence how we see the world, what we pay attention to, what gets resources, and often, what gets solved. 

To answer the first question, it’s important to understand how journalists can do better. 

Better, in this context, means a proportionate focus on both good and bad happenings. But can they afford it? I don’t think so.

For the longest time, the media has been funded by advertisement, but that source of revenue is now drying up. And guess who gets blamed: Facebook and Google (who brought in one-fifth of global ad spend as at 2017). But these companies report that advertisers are moving their revenue to their platforms simply because it’s more efficient to advertise there and more importantly people spend more time on social sites. 

Before the Internet

Source: Baekdal Media

After the internet:

Source: Baekdal Media

If you were going to advertise your product or service, would you advertise via Google where people are shown your products when they’re either searching for it or a similar product, or would you rather buy an ad section in a newspaper? 

Blaming these companies is similar to blaming the decline in the use of horses on the advent of cars. One just works better than the other.

What’s Newsworthy?

The media gets a lot of blame for focusing on bad news. But why is this the case? Is it because bad news receives more attention, or is it linked to the business model that media organisations run on? I’d say both, more of the latter though.

Appealing Stories/titles → Visits → Impressions or Clicks → Advertising Revenue.

If Ad revenue is drying up because there’s a better alternative, then maybe there’s also a better alternative to ad revenue: Readers should pay. But it’s not that simple, I’m aware, as Tech cabal puts it, that “People aren’t paying for news, but it costs money to maintain quality newsrooms.”  

Can people who live in Africa -- where feeding is a priority and everything else, luxury -- afford to pay for what was once free? Yes. At least some of them (45% of BusinessDay’s revenue comes from subscriptions), given that they are provided with valuable information.

This is where the responsibility of journalists comes in.

If misinformation drives public sentiment, which in turn drives policies, which can harm communities further, then we should pay more attention to what causes misinformation.

If there’s any debt to be paid by Journalists, it can be paid using a new business model.

What these recent crimes stories have in common with what’s happening in the media space is that simply asking for better isn’t good enough, asking why better isn’t being done is a more effective first step. Recognizing the blame instinct and beating it would take us a step further in defeating misinformation.

The blame instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened...this instinct to find a guilty party derails our ability to develop a true, fact-based understanding of the world: it steals our focus as we obsess about someone to blame, then blocks our learning because once we have decided who to punch in the face we stop looking for explanations elsewhere.

In the end, social vices are caused by systemic failure. It’s often deeper than the first apparent reason. And as seen in the case of the media, a part of the solution mostly involves something you can do.