All roads led to intense discussion and debate at the 17th annual Highway Africa Conference.
At a workshop held on Sunday 1 September, delegates deliberated on the relationship between the media, researchers and civil society organisations (CSOs).
This workshop featured a panel of representatives from six African countries.
Ashley Green-Thompson, a former Director of the SA Network of Trauma Service Providers, and a current consultant of the Southern Africa Trust chaired the panel discussion.
The Southern Africa Trust which supported the discussion, is an independent, non-profit agency that facilitates processes to increase participation in policy dialogue with a regional impact on poverty.
The panellists included the Deputy Editor of New Vision newspaper, Catherine Mwesigwa Kizza (Uganda), science writer and journalist, Leoni Joubert (South Africa), the Chief Reporter of the Ghana News Agency, Linda Asante-Ageyi and the Senior Investigative Journalist at National Publications Limited (NPL), Wisdom Chimgwede (Malawi).
The panel discussion kicked off with Kizza discussing the dependence of the media on CSOs because of their affiliation with grassroots organisations.
Despite the perceived role of the media as a voice for the voiceless, Kizza criticised the media for being accessible mostly to the elite who manage and influence news.
Kizza then went on to discuss the goals of New Vision newspaper who aim to work closely with CSOs to encourage innovation in society.
Asante-Ageyi reflected on how the collaboration between her media organisation and CSOs helped to publicize high traces of aflatoxins in maize and cyanide in water.
She acknowledged however that there is a large gap between researchers and the media because media practitioners often do not understand scientific jargon.
She argued that this issue needed to be dealt with because the media address the inner issues and are the voice of the voiceless.
Chimgwede stated that the media needed to maintain its independence while in relationship with CSOs and stressed that the stories presented by the media needed to suit the standards of the newsrooms without “merging” agendas with the CSOs.
Joubert who has written on issues of sustainability and poverty built on Kizza’s argument about the elite interests.
She stated that newsrooms only cater for the ideals of their constituencies who are mostly urbanised and also highlighted the expense for newsrooms to cater for stories in remote areas. Her view was that the media needed to push for funding from the CSOs in order to have grassroots’ stories included on the agenda.
Interesting questions and comments bounced around the room when the discussion was opened to the floor.
Most media practitioners were critical about the relationship, and raised their concerns about ensuring that stories from rural areas appealed to people from the urban areas.
Another delegate cautioned against “cognitive capture” i.e. making the views of the CSO one’s own when reporting.
Green-Thompson probed the panellists for information on the impact that their collaboration had on policy-change and all agreed that the impact was minimal yet visible.
The floor and panellists spoke about how news organisations could maintain their independence by using counter-narratives or not publishing a story immediately until it was suitable for the agenda.
The panellists also remarked that the marginalised people of rural areas could be a vital audience to cater to by engaging with their issues, especially due to concerns that the audiences of print publications are dwindling.