Getting started in international development journalism

The term ‘development journalism’ only came to exist in the sixties, as media organisations in Asia and Africa responded to the growing number of aid agencies working in developing countries. As such, there’s no real set route to pursue to become a development journalist. Those working in the field now openly admit to having ‘fallen into’ the profession, through subbing, volunteering, and working for NGOs.

So if your goal is to report on development issues – be it food security in the Sahel, women’s land rights in Rwanda, or access to life-saving medications in South Africa – what can you do to steer your career towards becoming an international development journalist? I spoke to three experts – Sue George (freelance writer and editor of the Guardian’s annual International Development Journalism competition), Tom Murphy (blogger and journalist on humanitarian issues for Humanosphere), and Mark Tran, (correspondent for Guardian Global Development) – for their advice on becoming an international development reporter.

Gain a ‘level of legitimacy’

Tom Murphy: “There’s a whole language to the field of development and you definitely want to familiarise yourself with the names of all of these NGOs and some of these key buzzwords and phrases that are often repeated. That really helps you actually talk about it with the people that are involved and it helps you see between the lines. It’s really valuable when you can know what’s going on and be able to ask the right questions.”

Know your stuff … and pick a specialism

Sue George: “I think having a specialism within development is really important, actually, certainly if you’re trying to get started. I think that lots of people end up having that anyway. Maybe they have a country specialism because they know a lot about that country, or maybe they have a theme specialism.”

Mark Tran: “I think the best way to do this is to have a general knowledge of development issues and then have an area that you try and develop and deepen your knowledge of. It always stands you in good stead to know one particular subject, or a couple of subjects, that you know in detail more than others, but you need a broad general knowledge of the field as well. If you can combine the two, I think that’s the ideal way to do it.”

Identify neglected issues

Tom Murphy: “The over-arching thing that I think needs to be thought about more, and will be changing, is how aid is going to be different in the next few years. There’s this possibility that the age of the NGO might be coming to a close sometime soon, so what does it look like when Oxfam is becoming less relevant? And when do we reach that point?”

Sue George: “One thing I know that is not covered sufficiently is the area of non-communicable diseases [a non-infectious and non-transmissible disease]. The developing world is having increasing problems with things like heart attacks, diabetes and road traffic accidents. All these things are big, big problems in the developing world and I don’t think that they’re being looked at sufficiently… so someone could have a go at that!”

Prepare for the future 

Tom Murphy: “The most important (and also most boring) thing to know about is what happens after 2015. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are going to run out and that is a major discussion that’s going to be happening at the UN in September. Whatever comes of that is really what sets the bar [for the future]. It’s going to have a long-lasting affect. The conversations are really weird and non-specific at this point, but when these goals start being hammered out, that’s going to matter a lot and that will change how people report.”

Keep your eyes peeled

Tom Murphy: “There are fellowships and there are opportunities. The Pulitzer Center is looking for people to report on global health. The International Reporting Project (based out of John Hopkins University) does trips. I went with them to Tanzania in October and I’m going with them to Brazil in March. They do a few trips per year; you go for two weeks and it’s a pretty neat opportunity to get your hands dirty. You get to work alongside some really stellar journalists from different subject areas and parts of the world.”

Get out there

Sue George: “One thing that might be a good idea if you’re really keen on doing this is to live in a developing world country for a bit. So let’s say you can speak French; maybe you could go to Senegal and see if there are any stories there that you could write about. You find out more and more about living in that country. You get really good contacts. You could pitch some stories to all sorts of publications and you would get to know the individuals there to find out what the stories might be.”

Tom Murphy: “Try to get out there and familiarise yourself with the region. When things that garner a larger attention happen, then you’re really well placed to do a lot of reporting for a lot of different places. A good example would be Westgate (the al-Shabaab attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in September 2013). The major news networks from the US and Europe were pleading for anything and everything in terms of stories, so the people who were there who already knew the city and who knew Kenya, were able to churn out a tonne of stories. That’s a rare exception but these things do come up every so often, and when you’re there, you’re in a much better position than anyone else.”

Mark Tran: “It’s almost like trying to be a foreign correspondent and the best way is to be somewhere, where there is a demand for foreign news. For example, if you’re in somewhere like Afghanistan, development is also such a huge element of the story so you can end up writing about resource exploitation, education… so in a way, it’s like an extra dimension to foreign reporting. And with foreign reporting, the best place to do that is from a particular country or region. If you’re lucky enough to be somewhere interesting like Mali or Nigeria, development is going to be a very important part of the coverage.”

This article originally appeared on Wannabe Hacks.


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