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    Strengthening Trade Coverage in the Media


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 4/2006

    How can trade experts and journalists work together to make sense of global change?

    As world attention focuses on negotiations on the rules of international trade, one crucial aspect that remains largely ignored is the role of the media in both developed and developing countries in raising public awareness and debate about trade policy-making.

    Coverage of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and related trade issues in many developing country media is not only scant, but is often also marked by a "disconnect" in analysing the links between global decision-making and national policy formulation, and their implications for ordinary people.

    Sketchy reporting

    Although there is frequent coverage of the views of national traders' associations and other powerful domestic interests on trade rules, the voices of the poor and marginalized - small farmers, workers or women - rarely find a mention.

    Media reporting also frequently examines trends in top-level negotiations without sufficiently analysing the underlying interests or substantive issues at stake. As with the lack of attention to the human impact of trade, some observers find this tendency in media in developed countries, too.

    But it is journalists from developing countries, often under-supported and under-resourced, who face the most testing challenge of enlightening the public and bringing their views into a wider debate of trade policies.

    Many of the world's poorest countries fail to send journalists to international trade negotiation meetings, either because of resource constraints or because they don't consider it a priority.

    Panos trained 13 journalists from Asia and Africa to cover trade and development issues during WTO's 2005 Hong Kong ministerial conference and the 2006 suspension of its Doha trade talks (see http://www.panos.org.uk/tradingplaces).

    Panos's aim was to help journalists cover trade developments in ways that would address some typical shortcomings of traditional reporting:

    • National-international policy links: Analyse the relationship between international trade rules and national trade policy challenges.
    • Accessible analysis: Make complex policy processes and issues intelligible for target audiences, explaining technical language and jargon.
    • Development perspective and poverty focus: Focus on the link between trade and development - opportunities and barriers - and the implications of trade policies for poverty reduction.
    • Human impact: Highlight how trade and trade policies affect people (for example, access to essential goods and services or employment).
    • Poor people's voices: Gather and include the views of poor and vulnerable groups and of organizations working with them.
    • Gender: Consider how trade policies reflect and affect the roles and socio-economic position of men and women.
    • Interest representation and decision-making: Explore the underlying social, economic and political interests involved in trade policy-making.
    • Views of different interest groups: Interview interest groups and stakeholders (e.g., consumers, producers, workers, small businesses, different ministries, parliamentarians) included or excluded in trade policy-making nationally and internationally.
    Despite the emphasis on poverty reduction among policy-makers in the light of the Millennium Development Goals, it remains a challenge to encourage newspapers to report on trade and development at a time when the media environment itself is rapidly changing. The focus on poverty, once a strong feature of much developing-country journalism, appears to have been diluted on the pages of many Southern newspapers in recent years, in tandem with the growing commercialization of their newspaper industry.

    Journalists from developing countries have remarked to Panos that coverage of trade and development often does not figure uppermost in the minds of the media owners, managers and editors who have to operate in an increasingly competitive commercial environment. Ostensibly "dry" stories on trade and poverty may be deemed of little interest beyond an elite group of readers. And in the battle for editorial space, with the pressure or attraction of increasing advertising revenue, stories on this subject may lose out to other topics.

    Time to push boundaries?

    Yet several journalists and editors have argued strongly that innovative ways to make trade and development stories attractive should be found and that there should be a greater commitment to providing editorial space for them.

    If, as part of its public interest responsibilities, the media is to report on trade from the perspective of development and poverty reduction, the first big challenge is for journalists to examine national trade-poverty debates more closely, given the importance of national government input in international trade decision-making. The next is to look at how national issues are dealt with by the policy process internationally, whether in the WTO or elsewhere.

    Decisions at these levels may affect both public access to essential goods and services such as food, medicines, water and electricity in developing countries and the contribution of developed countries to international development and poverty reduction.

    One obstacle that prevents trade decision-making from becoming more focused on poverty reduction, according to some analysts, is the somewhat narrow range of policy-makers and interest groups involved in determining the process and content of trade policy in both developing and developed countries (in spite of the upsurge of civil society and policy research activity on trade policy over the last decade).

    Such gaps in public involvement are not, of course, a problem for the media itself to fix. But journalists do have a legitimate interest in investigating whom governments are consulting or failing to consult in their policy formulation, what the issues at stake and consequences of policies are for all socio-economic groups and whether the views of poor people are taken into account. By providing unbiased reports that inform rather than sensationalize, that reflect the many views that should count (farmers, consumers, workers, businesspeople, minority groups, women and men), journalists, in serving and extending their target audiences, can support better public understanding and help widen the debate.

    Both in the WTO and in other trade negotiations, national governments are beginning to recognize that a coordinated national position, based on the input of different domestic groups, can help a country to negotiate with greater confidence and credibility internationally. Developing countries, including Mauritius, Uganda and Kenya, have set up structures to widen stakeholder consultation beyond a narrow group of government officials.

    Whatever the media relations and public communication challenges facing governments, one clear impression gained by Panos is that the media and non-state stakeholders (e.g., civil society organizations and policy research organizations) could do much more to strengthen their interaction. This in turn would strengthen overall public communication on trade and development issues.

    Jon Barnes is Head of the Globalisation Programme at the Panos Institute in London, part of a worldwide network of non-governmental organizations working with the media to stimulate debate on global development issues.

    Panos trade briefings

    Panos's media toolkits on poverty reduction summarize the issues at stake and different views in the debate.

    • Making or missing the links? The politics of trade reform and poverty reduction
      As policy-makers talk of "pro-poor" growth, this briefing explores the polarized debate on the links between trade liberalization, economic growth and poverty reduction. It looks at the possible effects of trade reforms and encourages questions about costs and benefits.
    • Signed and sealed? Time to raise the debate on international trade talks
      This briefing focuses on agriculture, industry, ser-vices and intellectual property, examining the trade and development issues at stake in WTO negotiations and decision-making. It also looks at development implications of regional and bilateral trade deals.
      To see the full kits

    This article is an edited extract of a Panos working paper by Jon Barnes and Dipankar de Sarkar, Trade challenges, media challenges: strengthening trade coverage beyond the headlines (see
    http://www.wto.org/english/forums_e/public_forum_e/trade_challenges.pdf ). Comments are welcome; contactglobalisation@panos.org.uk