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Published 21 June 2012 14:49, Updated 22 June 2012 05:38
Source: University of Texas
Business people are crucial to journalism and not just as subjects to write about.
Some years ago, I taught a business journalism course in Malawi. It’s a small, not particularly important country in central Africa between Zambia and Mozambique, stretched around a big lake of the same name.
For many years, long before I went there, Malawi was run by a dictator called Hastings Banda who outlawed the use of overtly racist terms. As a result, at the Ryalls Hotel in the business capital of Blantyre, a former manager told me that waiting staff were not allowed to ask guests if they wanted “white” or “black” coffee but instead had to offer coffee “with milk” or “without milk”.
Malawi’s come along a bit since then. Banda – who, despite his pronouncements about language was a great mate of the apartheid regime of South Africa – has gone to whatever awaits late dictators but the country is still wrestling with the typical demons of post-colonial African states, such as poor leadership, poverty and corruption. Poverty is the greatest one. Not being blessed with the natural resources of say, copper-rich Zambia, Malawi languishes at the bottom of the global financial league table. A US government ranking puts it at 216th out of 226 territories, with a per capita GDP of just $US900 ($886) a year.
(Of course, having resources in and of itself is no guarantee of wealth. At the bottom of the same list is Democratic Republic of Congo, with a cornucopia of minerals to exploit, yet which is still languishing with a paltry $US300 per capita GDP).
Journalism is a challenging trade in Malawi. Things took a turn for the better in May this year when the country’s parliament voted to repeal a law passed 18 months earlier under the increasingly authoritarian presidency of Bingu wa Mutharika that allowed the information minister to ban any publication the government deemed contrary to public interest. Mutharika died in April and the repeal happened under his deputy who took over, Joyce Banda (a common surname in that part of the world).
Government harassment aside, the biggest challenge for journalists is a lack of support to do their job. The ones I spent the weekend with were interested in the list of web resources I showed them. They just didn’t have functioning internet connections to access them. They agreed with the idea of getting context and comment from outside sources. The problem was that there was only one phone in the bureau and it was in the editor’s office. If they used up precious airtime on their own pay-as-you-go mobiles, they weren’t going to be reimbursed. Their poverty-stricken papers couldn’t afford to.
From Malawi to Melbourne, journalists face the same issues the world over. They provide information that informs, entertains and helps people form judgments and make decisions. Different forces make that easier and harder to do.
These journos tried as much as possible to get out and see people. But again, they had to use their own money even if they wanted to catch a minibus taxi across town. Their paper wasn’t going to reimburse them. When a company made an announcement and wanted coverage, it would put on a bus to collect journalists and bring them over to hear the news.
Still, there was a will to improve things. The course I taught was funded by the World Bank and the Malawi Privatisation Commission. Various leading business people came that weekend to talk to the gathered journos about their own industries, to encourage them to write about it in an informed way.
That weekend, the support of business people was crucial. It is everywhere. The media only functions properly if there’s sufficient understanding in the community about the role it should play and the rules by which it should operate. Journalists must be straight with people, respect confidences, be honest and ethical. Business interests must understand the difference between reporting and ads. It’s a state of affairs we all strive for, but one not always achieved.
The course was great fun. The students enjoyed discussing their trade with an outsider and practising different ways of writing outside of the daily deadline grind. The session lasted all day on a Friday and continued on the Saturday. But in the last Friday session, I looked around for one of the class ringleaders. He’d been a noisy, active participant earlier. Now he was gone. I asked a colleague.
“He got a call from his editor. A company is taking out a big ad in tomorrow’s paper and he had to go back and write about them.”