Decolonising journalism: Is objectivity really possible or it is only to people who don’t have to fight to be seen fully?

Decolonising journalism: Is objectivity really possible or it is only to people who don’t have to fight to be seen fully?


Dear readers,

Since last year, institutions the world over have been exploring how to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in their work. The New Humanitarian is no exception.

We have, of course, been a leading voice in examining this issue within the humanitarian sector – namely through our Rethinking Humanitarianism series – but we also need to scrutinise ourselves. While most newsrooms fail to authentically represent their audiences and the people they serve, this is particularly true in coverage of humanitarian news.

Conflict, disasters, epidemics and refugees are all topics that tend to see higher rates of parachute and “white saviour” journalism, often reflecting only the worst of a society’s reality.

How can we adopt more progressive ways of working and better represent the communities we serve?

We have always tried to work with local journalists; to amplify the voices of those most affected; to produce our journalism with nuance and fairness; and to present the subject of our stories with dignity. But we remain a largely “Global North” core team, editing articles written by or about people in the so-called “Global South”.

So, we’ve been spending a fair bit of time over the last few months asking ourselves how we can adopt more progressive ways of working and better represent the communities we serve.

For instance: How can the communities we cover play a bigger role in shaping the narratives we tell? How can we present an even more balanced picture of what is happening, including both the negative and the positive? How can our work attract local as well as international audiences? How can we ensure that the stories we report are not only about but also of relevance and service to these communities?

Journalists are gatekeepers by definition: We use our news judgement to select stories that we believe are relevant for our audience. How can we shed the negative qualities of that role while maintaining the useful aspects? How can we work with local communities to ensure that issues of concern to them are widely communicated?

What terms do we use that may reinforce power imbalances? What information do we leave out that may ignore colonial histories? Is the language we use empowering or victimising?

Journalistic standards are generally set by the West – and more specifically, by older white men. How can we embrace more universal definitions of “quality journalism”? How do we stop hiding behind the veil of objectivity – a privilege afforded only to those who have the luxury of being detached, for “people who don’t have to fight to be seen fully”, as gay, undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas says.

What formats might allow people of different backgrounds or who speak different languages to express themselves more authentically, without having to fit into “our” journalistic mould? How can we create more opportunities on our team for journalists from the communities we cover? How do we better identify and nurture them?

Over the next months, we will be navigating some of these questions internally. But we feel this is a reflection we shouldn’t have alone.

At this year’s DW Global Media Forum, we began opening up our internal reflection to the public. We hosted a session with the African news and opinion platform The Elephant on decolonising media coverage of the Global South. Together with The Elephant’s curator-in-chief, Patrick Gathara, I explored why international media coverage needs to be decolonised; what that looks like; and the challenges associated with it.

This week, I also spoke to the podcast about how we are aiming to put communities at the heart of our reporting.

We will host a larger convening later this year for media practitioners to come together and reflect collectively on these questions, exchange thoughts and lessons, and hopefully collectively draw up a better way forward.

Along the way, we will seek input from members of local communities, experts and academics, and other newsrooms. Researchers studying the de-Westernisation of media will also study our work and make recommendations.

What is already happening that we can learn from? Where are examples of best practice? Who should we engage with as part of these reflections? And what are meaningful ways to consult affected people about the stories we tell? What are new formats we might consider? Who may be willing to support this kind of work?

On a separate but related note, we’re also looking to bring together donors and policy makers with local community representatives and racial justice activists for an intimate and frank roundtable – in typical TNH style – on what’s getting in the way of decolonising aid. We’d welcome your thoughts on that too, in particular, where you see gaps in the current conversations on this topic and how The New Humanitarian can add value.

As Indigenous educator and social justice advocate Nikki Sanchez put it in a recent TEDxTalk: “This work of decolonisation is work we need to come together to do — equally accepting our roles, locations, privileges… This history is not your fault, but it is absolutely your responsibility… Decolonisation is work that belongs to all of us. Every person has specific gifts that are needed to do this work. We need you.”

  • The New Humanitarian opinion / Heba Aly
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