Development Journalism

Janet Steele. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

Development journalism is a type of reporting and writing on topics related to the process of economic development. Its supporters define it as independent journalism that highlights news of development projects, provides critical coverage of development planning and programs, and informs readers of how the development process is affecting them. Although the concept of development journalism sounds simple, it has been highly politicized since it was first created in the 1960s. Much of the debate over development journalism has focused on the issue of press freedom, and whether or not a commitment to covering economic development from a positive and even “emancipatory” perspective is fundamentally at odds with freedom of the press.

In its early days, development journalism was linked to theories of communication and development and was thus affected by the politics of the cold war. In an era of heightened rhetoric over modernization and the best way to attain it, the United States and the Soviet Union put forth competing visions of the role of the press. During the 1980s, when many developing countries argued that the structure of the world news system left them at a disadvantage, development journalism also played a role in the struggle for a “New World Information and Communication Order” (NWICO). Although American opponents of NWICO lost interest in development journalism after the collapse of Communism, it has continued to survive as a concept in the style of “Asian values” journalism advocated by Singapore and Malaysia. There are also echoes of development journalism in some of the “community radio” projects funded by international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in less-developed countries today.


The roots of development journalism extend deep into the 1950s, and to the theories of modernization espoused by W. W. Rostow, Daniel Lerner, and Samuel Huntington. In the years after World War II, these theorists described a one-directional means of propelling traditional societies along the road to modernization and economic development, while simultaneously helping them avoid the pitfalls of Communism. Communication was seen as a powerful tool for modernization, and mass media were understood to assist not only in the development of modern personality traits such as “empathy,” but also in the expansion of democracy and economic and political participation. Communication theorists such as Wilbur Schramm posited a model of press development that likewise utilized stages and suggested a trajectory in which journalism passed through “authoritarian,” “libertarian,” and “social responsibility” phases.

One of the first organizations to promote development journalism was the Press Foundation of Asia (PFA). Established in Manila in 1967, the PFA took a practical approach to implementing the modernizers’ notion that informing readers about the development processes that were affecting their lives was one way of bringing about social and economic change. The PFA was founded by a group of prominent Asian journalists, and included many champions of press freedom who had previously been jailed by authoritarian regimes. Committed to focusing on development news while steering clear of government interference, the Press Foundation of Asia received little government funding and instead relied on regional newspapers and agencies, international foundations, and the UN to support its programs. These programs included training for journalists, a center for press freedom, and a development news service called Depthnews that served clients throughout the region.

Depthnews was launched in 1969. Its goal was to provide an outlet for graduates of its training programs, and to offer subscriber papers and radio stations a weekly package of articles focusing on development news that they would pay for on a sliding scale. An acronym for “Development, Economics, and Population Themes,” Depthnews was distinct from Western news services in that it aimed to report on the process of development in member countries rather than focusing on specific events. More controversial, it also departed from conventional Western notions of objectivity, and allowed journalists an active role in alerting readers to social problems and promoting change. According to media researcher Floyd McKay, when Depthnews was awarded the prestigious Magsaysay award in 1992, it claimed to have reached a potential audience of 2.3 million readers and 56.5 million radio listeners via 300 regional newspapers and 700 radio stations.

Development News and Authoritarian Regimes

It was not only modernization theorists who saw in journalism a powerful tool for development. Almost as soon as the concept of development journalism was established, it was appropriated by government leaders such as the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Indonesia’s Soeharto, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, and Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew. These authoritarian leaders began to espouse policies that drew upon parts of the development journalism agenda while conveniently ignoring others. In many cases, development journalism was used by repressive regimes to justify government control of the press. In Indonesia, for example, the press was expected to serve the interests of the nation as defined by the Soeharto regime. Newspapers were encouraged to showcase economic and social development, and discouraged from reporting on anything that would undermine this positive view.

The politicization of the debate over development journalism was thus based partly on the way in which authoritarian regimes used the notion of development to justify repressive measures taken against journalists. Yet this politicization was minor compared to the role that development journalism played in the cold war debate between the United States and the Soviet Union over the proper role of the press in society. The debate polarized journalists and forced them into two camps: those who supported a “free” and commercial press system versus those who supported a “controlled” one. Development journalism was seen by many Western commentators as being stuck somewhere in the middle.

Developing Nations and the Global News Flow

At the same time that journalists in some less developed countries were arguing that there needed to be a new kind of journalism that informed readers about the development process while simultaneously empowering them toward more democratic participation, others were pointing out that there were sharp inequalities in global news flows. The controversy over the global flow of information—as well as the call for a “New World Information and Communication Order” (NWICO) began with the Non-Aligned Movement of Third-World countries in the 1970s, and climaxed in the 1978 Mass Media Declaration at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) general conference. Both of these events were related to development journalism. Proponents of the NWICO argued that most of the world’s international news agencies were based in the United States and Europe, and that these companies depicted the developing world in ways that were ethnocentric, shallow, negative, and distorted. They further argued that news flowed in one direction, from North to South, and that developing countries were powerless to counter the largely negative images that emerged from these commercial news agencies. In many cases, developing countries were forced to rely on Western reporting for news of their own regions. Particular targets for criticism were the “big four”: Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Reuters, and Agence France-Presse (AFP). Although TASS (the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) was sometimes mentioned as the fifth international news agency, it received less criticism because, as an instrument of the Soviet Union, it tended to ally itself with Non-Aligned nations in calling for greater state involvement in the media in order to insure a more “responsible” press.

Although the Soviet Union’s dispute with the West over government control of the flow of information was ideological, most Third World countries had more practical concerns. The call for a New World Information and Communication Order (sometimes referred to as New World Information Order, or NWIO) led to the formation of the MacBride Commission. This UNESCO commission, which was tasked with analyzing global structures of news and offering solutions to inequalities in the flow of information to, from, and between developing countries, provoked controversy from the start. Its final report, Many Voices, One World, issued in 1980, called for limits to transnational monopolies and concentration, and regulation of international advertising. The MacBride Commission report led to an uproar at UNESCO in part because “distributive justice” in the flow of information and fundamental questions of who owned the means of communication were not seen by the developed countries that funded UNESCO as being part of the international agency’s mandate.

The MacBride Commission Report was almost immediately interpreted as being hostile to a free press. Organizations such as the International Press Institute, Freedom House, and the World Press Freedom Committee stated their objections to what they interpreted as calls for state-controlled media, and in doing so used language and rhetoric that dovetailed with preexisting criticisms of development journalism. They argued that there was no conscious effort by the “Big Four” to distort news from the Third World, and that, to the contrary, wire services and other international news organizations made decisions in accordance with standard conventions of newsworthiness. Thus the actions of powerful nations like the United States and the Soviet Union are more newsworthy than those of developing countries because they are more likely to affect the fortunes of the rest of the world. Other supporters of the “Free Flow of Information” pointed out that even in developing countries the national media tend to focus on disasters such as floods and famine, and violent political activities like strikes or coups. Moreover, they argued that the Third World countries demanding a New World Information and Communication Order were actually more interested in halting negative reporting about their own un-democratic regimes than they were about seeking to resolve inequalities in the flow of information.

The discourse over the NWICO was thus quite similar to many of the concerns that had led to the creation development journalism, especially with regard to the feeling that developing countries were not being reported upon fairly in the international media. Proponents of NWICO pointed out that by focusing exclusively on negative events rather than the everyday successes of development projects such as family planning, food distribution, and health care, Western news organizations were not only distorting the realities of life in developing countries, but were also contributing to feelings of frustration and hopelessness. The most frequently proposed NWICO solution was a kind of national communications policy, in which developing nations would encourage the press to cover domestic concerns, especially those related to economic development. The idea was that these policies would assist in advancing the national development agenda, while also helping to foster a sense of cultural identity, something that was at risk of being lost in a media system dominated by transnational corporations. These NWICO proposals further resembled development journalism in that they were premised on the assumption that journalists in developing countries should abandon the value-neutral posture of “objectivity,” and instead speak out for values that were consistent with anti-colonialism, democracy, peace, and universal human rights.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s not only took the wind out of the sails of those who advocated government-owned and controlled mass media, but also ended the struggle for the allegiance of the nonaligned nations that was at the heart of the call for distributive justice in global news flows. In 1984, under President Ronald Reagan (1981–89), the United States pulled out of UNESCO for reasons that were related to the agency’s continued championing of the NWICO. At this point, the most vocal advocates for government-directed national communication policies were political leaders in developing countries who began to shift the rhetoric to something called “Asian values.”

Asian Values

For years, political leaders in Asia have argued that development journalism is uniquely suited to Asian countries. Two noted proponents of development journalism are Singapore’s Senior Minister (and former Prime Minister) Lee Kwan Yew and Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. They have argued that in Asia, unlike in liberal Western democracies, a government/media partnership makes sense for both historical and cultural reasons. Although it is difficult to generalize about “values” in a region as diverse as Asia, both Mahathir and Lee have argued that Asian values include a preference for family over self, community over the individual, and consensus over confrontation. Mahathir and Lee deny that their countries are any less “democratic” than their Western counterparts and contend that whereas the West emphasizes the rights of the individual, the Asian approach promotes the rights of the community, the collective good, and the prosperity of the whole.

Critics of the Asian values approach point out that while controlled media may or may not protect economic development, they clearly protect those who are holding power. Others have suggested that the speedy restoration of press freedom in the Philippines and Indonesia after the toppling of authoritarian regimes suggests that not all “Asians” share the values advocated by Mahathir and Lee.


There is much in the idea of the press as a means of empowering ordinary people to deal with rapid social and economic change that strikes a responsive chord in developing countries. Despite the efforts of political leaders who have tried to use it as a means of staying in power, there is nevertheless something immensely attractive about an emancipatory style of journalism that aims to empower citizens to better understand the forces that affect their lives.

Despite the controversy that continues to stick to development journalism, many international NGOs and USAID contractors practice some if not all of its tenets. Community radio, for example, takes as a given the principle that people in developing countries need information about family planning, health, and agricultural developments in order to lead better lives. In its emphasis on a bottom-up flow of communication, as well as its call for news that gives voice to ordinary citizens, development journalism also resembles the civic journalism movement that became popular in the United States in the 1990s. Development journalism’s supporters contend that this style of news reporting and writing is in keeping with one of the most fundamental goals of journalism: to provide citizens with the information they need in order to take control of their lives.