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The journalism of poverty and the poverty of journalism

Guy Gough Berger


Paper for International Communications Forum, Cape Town

April 5-9 2003

Posted with permission of the author
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This paper's title is an echo of a phrase by Marx, who cut some of his many political teeth by writing a book with similar terminology - though he referred to philosophy rather than journalism. However, seeing that Karl himself was a journalist as well as a philosopher, he probably would not object to the application of his poverty dictum to the topic of journalism.

Another relevant reference from Marx concerns his declaration that "philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it." Again, we can substitute the word "journalists" for "philosophers", and not do an injustice to the old man's perspectives.

Another salient thing about atheist Karl is that he certainly did not agree with the biblical injunction that "the poor will always be with us". His activism was precisely to abolish the poverty that he (and Engels) described so vividly during the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, this is not to say Marx had all the answers to poverty, or to defining the role of journalism. But there is some value in these points I have lifted from him, as will be argued in this paper. Another point that one also can usefully take from his writings is the distinction between consumption and production: for Marx, income levels (or lack of income) were not fundamental - underpinning them were relationships to the means of production. Poverty was a symptom of a deeper malady of ownership inequalities. For him, of course, the solution lay in educating and mobilising people to control production in a different way and, above all, in profound political change.

These points sum up some of the challenges facing those of us in media with concerns about journalism's relationship to poverty:

  • What are the fundamental causes of poverty?
  • If poverty is not God-given and can be fought, the issue is how?
  • How "poor" is our journalism in reflecting the stories of poor people?
  • How "poor" is our journalism in communicating the complex causes of, and solutions for, poverty?
  • What impact does our journalism have on both the practicalities and the politics of changing poverty?

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