This write up is an excerption from a Masters Thesis in Development Studies by the writer titled: AN ANALYSIS ON THE MEDIA’S PORTRAYAL OF POVERTY AND ITS IMPLICATION ON POVERTY ERADICATION: A CASE OF ZIMBABWE
Poverty exist everywhere in the world but the kind in Africa is of unlimited magnitude both in its range and destitutive aspect.
The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda, as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) launched in 2015 require countries to reduce poverty in ‘all its forms and dimensions’, including extreme poverty.
This offers paramount opportunities for the media to play a strategic role in poverty eradication.
Communication is key in every development initiative hence the media plays a significant role in the fight against poverty as it reaches a wide audience.
The concept of ‘knowledge societies’, according to UNESCO is based on freedom of expression, universal access to information and knowledge among other tenants.
This concept recognises the crucial role of the media in creating activities that will expand access to information and contribute to achieving the SDGs.
Due to economic induced hardships, many Zimbabweans had been reduced to paupers as they cannot afford the fundamental requirements in life.
Many people are not employed and the economy tends to be eroding all forms of livelihoods.
More than half of Zimbabweans falls below the poverty line.
For sustainable development to take place there is need for participatory communication.
The poor people need to have their voices strengthened and empowered so as to meaningfully improve their lives and achieve sustainable development.
Communication should not be one way, from the sender to the receiver but should be two way, the receiver of information should also be able to be sending information at some point.
There is need for poor people to participate in communication and articulate issues pertaining their poverty situation in order for pragmatic measures to be taken that alleviate the situation.
Effective information and communication processes are prerequisites for successful development.
The media fulfils an important role in shaping, amplifying and responding to public attitudes towards poverty.
The media influences opinions on policy formulation and implementation.
Distortions of poverty information in the media can lead to policies which do not address the dire poverty situation.
The media’s main stories create a visual sense of reality for the consuming public.
It is of significance to note that people rely on the media so as to understand public discourses.
The media have an impact in shaping sentiments, perceptions and attitudes of the media consumers and for this reason an increased power and ability to communicate is what the poor people wish for themselves.
World Bank (1999) after carrying out a survey of 40 000 poor people of what they desired most, having a ‘voice’ was one of the dominant response second only to improved income and basic necessities.
The reduction and elimination of poverty have risen to the top of international agenda (Hickey 2008).
For any improvement in the lives of poor people to be lasting and sustainable, it must include strengthening the powers of poor people to participate in the process of development and this entails strengthening their capacity to communicate.
The mass media is responsible for channelling mediated message to a large volume of audiences.
The media may not be successful in telling people on what to think but they are stunngily successful in telling media consumers on what to think about.
Zimbabwe has one television station and a handful of radio stations and a few print media organisations which are highly polarised along political lines and polarisation can even be witnessed in the new media.
With such high magnitude of political polarisation, the media framing of poverty could hardly escape the polarity lenses in Zimbabwe and no meaningful poverty reduction policy can be effected as poverty is construed in political lenses.
Through the media, poverty has been weaponised that all efforts to reduce poverty hardly escape the political essence.
Having few mainstream media channels, the media consumers rely strongly from these channels for information and these audiences have also become polarised and they prefer media channels that seem to favour or aligned to their political views.
Besides the polarity of the media, the reportage of poverty in the media just like in the international media, creates a picture in the media consumer’s mind that poverty is found in the rural areas and the towns are free from poverty.
Without proper media initiatives and strategies to report on poverty, development in Zimbabwe remains a mirage and an unachievable endeavour as no meaningful action will be taken to address the causal effect of underdevelopment.
The state affiliated mainstream media such as The Herald, The Sunday Mail, The Chronicle and Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation’s radio and television stations when reporting on poverty in the country put a narrative that people are suffering because of unlawful economic sanctions put on Zimbabwe by United States of America and her western allies.
The privately owned media such as The NewsDay when reporting on poverty they give a different account and attribute the suffering of the poor people due to ZANU PF mis-governance which is corrupt ridden and not willing to make reforms, be it electoral or political reforms.
The polarity in media coverage cannot escape poverty stories and it requires a critical mind to clearly understand the poverty situation in the country.
The new media in the make of Facebook, twitter, and various social media platforms have become an appendage of the mainstream media when reporting on poverty issues, some are also polarised according to political affiliations.
In the Zimbabwean media, poverty is mostly potrayed as a rural phenomenon whereas many people in urban environments are in serious poverty.
Resultantly, poor people in rural areas receive support in terms of basic need aid whilst their affiliates in urban areas wallow in poverty.
The interests and concerns of people living in poverty are not sufficiently exposed by the media (Chavis 1998).
The economic and business pressures on the media are deprioritising reporting on issues of social and public concern.
Media’s portrayal of poverty is one such measure that can be used to accelerate positive change and to lift millions of Zimbabweans out of absolute poverty.
The understanding of poverty in Zimbabwe is skewed.
Elderman (1977) pinpoints that the poor often do not constitute a viable media market and issues of public concern are increasingly marginalised.
The media can help to correct this by enabling people with experience of poverty to present their views and tell their stories.
The traditional media, which are the press, radio and television can engage people with experience of poverty to share their experience.
There are also unlimited opportunities for self-expression in the new media centred on the internet and the poor people need to harness this.
Chavis (1998) locates that through the concept of media framing or the effects of mediated messages on a community, the public become dependent on the media’s description of reality.
In effect, this reality is often times distorted especially when dealing with the issue of poverty.
Poor people are generally invisible in the media.
Poor people do not quantify into sellable commodities for sell to media consumers, hence they are invisible in the media.
The rare time the poor are visible, the media depicts the poor as poor due to their own life choices.
The media tells the poverty story without the social or institution context to back them up.
The media barely mention the outside factors that have contributed to the situation.
Sometimes the poor are represented as statistics and this objectification of people strip them of their human status and no initiatives will be carried to change their status.
Through such reporting and framing the poverty story in one way or another, journalists exercise huge influence on attitudes towards the issue, Mugari (2013).
Media has a central role in raising public awareness and mobilisation about a national problem such as poverty.
Panos (2007) emphasises that in recent years the prospective of communication to enhance the effectiveness of policies and strategies in fighting poverty in low-income developing countries has become clear.
In such countries, deprivation and social exclusion are daily realities.
However, the independent role of mass media for poverty alleviation in such countries is a neglected aspect of the emerging discussions.
Media could play important roles by informing the public, highlighting crucial issues and emphasising policy decisions and thus creating a climate of public concern and enabling debate about poverty alleviation issues.
Communication of poverty by the media can be used as a means of opinion formation and awareness creation for policymakers and development practitioners.
Information disseminated by media to influence people about a certain public problem such as poverty in Zimbabwe needs to cover and frame the issues effectively to achieve the intended objective.
This is because effective poverty communication of mass media has a paramount role in poverty alleviation efforts.
Griffin defines media frame as “the central organizing idea for news content that supplies a context and suggests what the issue is through the use of selection, emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration.”
Mass media are conceived as a fourth estate that check and balance all the three states of government namely legislators, judiciary and executives.
In the absence of vibrant media that provide the check and balance endeavours, governments cannot be effective in tackling the deep-rooted and multi-dimensional aspects of poverty.
By communicating poverty effectively, mass media are considered as a tool for poverty reduction and popular empowerment.
Ideally, the media should provide a voice to those marginalised because of poverty, gender, or ethnic or religious affiliations.
When news media frame poverty as a general outcome, responsibility for poverty is assigned to society-at-large.
Conversely, when news frame poverty as a particular instance of a poor person, the responsibility goes to the individual.
Though online media platforms seems more affordable, the content and coverage of events seem to be lopsided as it favours the elites and the poor’s story remains unknown and if known it is known from a third person narrative.
When the story of the poor is heard in the media it will be a narrative from the elites who frame the poor story to suit their whims.
The elites comes in the form of journalists, non-governmental organisations which represents the poor and social welfare departments who give a professional perspective of poverty in communities and several many other entities.
Though communication has been enhanced by globalisation but there is a glaring need to shun the digital divide in order to capacitate the poor.
Constraints on poor people to receive information includes, non-literacy, distance from sources of information and lack of energy source that limit the availability of radios and televisions and limited power in cell phones (Lister 2004).
Moreso, poor people’s capacities to make their voices heard is also limited as they lack access to powerful people and expensiveness of the media as well as lack of skills to play around with the internet.
Strengthening poor people’s power to engage in dialogue and sharing of information would lead to major changes in the lives of poor people.
Definitions and approaches to poverty are bound up with the dominant social, political and economic ideas of a time.
History also demonstrates that definitions of poverty have far more influence on whether or not poverty is addressed or ignored than its depth and severity (Edelman 1977).
How the Zimbabwean media portray poverty has a bearing as to the measures that could be taken in order to alleviate it.
How poverty is understood influences what is done about it.
Lister (2004) argues that the meaning of poverty is continually contested.
United Nations (1995) defines poverty as lack of income and productive resources sufficient to ensure sustainable livelihoods and this lead to social discrimination and exclusion.
Poverty is characterised by lack of participation in decision making and in civil, social and cultural life.
In spite of the fact that the world had been reduced into a global village, the poor though being the majority they seems to be excluded from the perceived global village.
The media has the noble duty of educating, entertaining and informing the public.
The political economy of the media and the business interests are the major factors that inhibit the poor from making the Headlines in the media.
The media have been compromised, from being the fourth arm of state to being a lapdog due to various economic and political factors in their operation (Herman and Chomsky 2002).
The media besides educating, entertaining and informing they are also behind profit making and their media coverage is purely business.
People experiencing poverty want to draw attention to their challenges, call for action to improve things, highlight what would make a difference and show solidarity with others.
The poor lacks the voice and the voice should be heard in the media.
To a foreigner observer who does not have the political, economic and social-cultural understanding of Zimbabwe, understanding poverty through information portrayed from the media is challenging.