By Ekpali Saint

Today, the world is faced with several problems, including environmental disasters that have resulted in the loss of lives and properties and displaced millions of people. In reporting issues like this, journalists sometimes tell these people’s stories in a way that could mete out more ‘burns’ on people already distressed and suffering the multiplier effects of problems such as environmental degradation, attacks, and disasters.

Generally, the way news is presented has a psychological impact on people. When journalists introduce the character of a story as hopeless and one without value, it results in fear, anxiety, and eventually, distrust in the media.

“Many communities are marginalised by the media when they are only shown in their worst days or when tragedy happens,” says Bernardo Motta, associate professor of journalism at Roger Williams University, United States. “That creates an image in the minds of the public that that community is broken somehow,” he says, “and that usually makes people who could be helping the community to look elsewhere.”

He said the main cause of this kind of narrative is the cultural mindset that has made it common to see people as mere subjects of stories.

“Most of us, even in the global south, have been trained in the American or European tradition, which, as we know, has been highly influenced by colonialism and imperialism. It is common to look down on other people like they are subjects of a story and not real people,” he told Jamlab.

A corrective force

But Motta believes asset framing is a corrective force. Asset framing is a “narrative model that defines people by their assets and aspirations before noting the challenges and deficits,” according to Trabian Shorters, an advocate and leading expert in asset framing. Unlike deficit framing which starts stories with challenges, asset framing introduces the character in a story as a person with accomplishments, hopes, and aspirations before identifying the barriers or challenges.

“Asset framing sees people and communities as they are, complete, complex, complicated, and, more importantly, as actors. They are not passive victims to whom things happen,” Motta explained, adding that “it is important to remember that people and communities are not only defined by their worst day or worst characteristic. Bad things happen, but there are always good things happening, too.”

For Motta, going into communities where people are already stressed and pointing out all their problems is “leaving them exposed without relief. It is bad ethics and bad journalistic practice.”

To correct this, he said the “first step would be a mindset change in how we train and educate journalists in general. We are too focused on finding and exposing problems and hoping that, if we make more people aware of the issue, someone will do something to fix it. It rarely works that way.”

Solutions to problems

He adds that another way would be for journalists to start thinking of how to bring useful news to the people they are reporting on. This means that instead of focusing on the problem, which the people already know, journalists can focus on the people coming together to organise solutions, in order to build better systems that will improve the quality of life.

“We can truly listen to what the people on the ground are doing to help themselves and to what they need to do better. That frame is not only more useful to those suffering the problem, but also to those who are not as they can learn more about coming together to find solutions to their own problems,” said Motta, the founder of Communities of Hope, a community-driven, solutions-oriented journalism programme.

Lekan Otufodunrin, executive director of Media Career Development Network, agrees. He said solutions journalism, which is rigorous reporting about how people are responding to social problems, is a great journalism practice that can help journalists tell a complete story. Although solutions journalism identifies the problem, Otufodunrin argues that solutions-focused stories still encourage people, especially as it focuses on the actual response to the problem and what others can learn from the response.

“Everything is not completely negative. You encourage people and not make them feel they are hopeless,” he said. “If journalists sometimes reflect on what they publish, they will be more circumspect. Journalism is not supposed to make people miserable. It is to inform and educate people.”

In reporting issues, however, Motta said it is important to listen and learn what is happening from those affected and not from experts who are far off. This means seeing the people as experts in their own experiences and the “most reliable sources” to explain what is happening to them, and understanding how their knowledge, skill sets, and resources can contribute significantly to improving their situations.

In this way, “we [journalists] can build trust and find ways to corroborate their stories without accepting opinions from people who are not living the same reality as fact. If we stop putting human beings in hierarchies based on money, race, and education and understand that everyone is perfectly capable of understanding their own conditions, we can tell richer, more complete, and much more useful stories that can help all of us move to a better place and not stay stuck in the same cycle of tragedy without end,” Motta said.

He adds that journalists are not only a mirror to the world but also a guiding light. “We can shine a light on tried solutions, on people who are working on the ground to fix the issue or to fight injustice, on useful and applicable information in the same way we can shine a light on the wrongdoing and on the dramatic consequences of a disaster. We can show what is working as much if not more than what is broken.”

Both Motta and Otufodunrin believe training journalists in asset framing will help them understand better ways to tell stories that will contribute to improving the lives of the people.

“A combination of training, refocusing the newsroom’s purpose, and developing accountable relationships with the local communities is necessary,” Motta said, adding that “In the end, it is about journalistic ethics. You either want to be part of building a better life for your community or you are just another obstacle in the way.”

Reporting supported by a micro-grant from Jamlab

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