Media, Activism, and Change

Wednesday, 7 May, 2008 - 07:38

The media’s role in supporting democracy and development has long debated. Increasingly, this debate has extended to how activists use media to advance their own agendas.

The media’s role in supporting democracy and development has long debated. Increasingly, this debate has extended to how activists use media to advance their own agendas. Objectivity is one of the core principles of journalism. Yet, everyone comes from a certain historical, ideological, and experiential background. Journalists, like anyone else can be passionate about certain causes, and have opinions. On the other hand, activists who effectively use media can advance their own issues and causes, to advocate for change.

As part of activities to celebrate 3 May International Media Freedom Day 2008, the most recent edition of the Gender and Media Diversity Journal (GMDJ) aims to create dialogue and debate about the interaction between media, activism, and change. It comes when South Africa is coping with a looming energy crisis, local media celebrity Redi Direko has been actively campaigning to end gender violence in taxi ranks,  recent electoral happenings in Kenya and Zimbabwe have attracted world attention, and food prices are rising worldwide. Like it or not, media plays an integral role, through what they do and do not report, focusing attention on social development and human rights issues.

Meanwhile, activists are becoming more astute at how to influence media.  Both media and activists have much to gain through increasing their knowledge of each other. Although the newly launched journal focuses on issues of gender, HIV/AIDS, governance and child and youth media, media also engage with such diverse issues as environmental reporting, post-conflict reconciliation, and a wide range of health issues, such as malaria and tuberculosis. 

In her contribution to the journal, Zarina Geloo, owner and editor of the Zambian Weekly Guardian, personifies the struggle between media and activism. She expresses her own self-conflict concerning her role as a human rights activist and journalist. She recognises that this role, and how others perceive it, is a difficult balance when it comes to bias. Recalling her involvement with a story on early marriages that resulted in her assisting the girl involved, she recollects, “I was not spared the wrath of the girls’ parents who asked whether I was a police officer, a judge or a journalist. Many media people asked the same question, somewhere more forthright, and asked me why I had bothered to set up a newspaper when I really should have formed an NGO.”

She explains: “It is an uncomfortable place I find myself in, because on the one hand I agree that journalists must maintain a professional distance from their stories…On the other hand, how can someone be objective in the face of human rights abuses, especially against vulnerable people like children? How can someone’s misery not touch you and move you into action?”

Perhaps no other community of activists has engaged with the media as pro-actively as gender activists.  For example, in South Africa, Gender Links (GL) has been working with a broad range of partners to try to redress imbalances in and through the media through research, advocacy, and training, targeting media producers, those who influence news content, and consumers.

Another example of where media and activism seem to merge is the inclusion in media of voices and stories from non-journalists. Gender Links’ annual production of ‘I’ Stories helps survivors of gender violence write and publish their stories in mainstream media, to raise awareness of the very real, and often unheard experiences of violence.  Similarly, the “Everyone Knows Someone” Campaign is a weekly column published in The Sunday Times in which people affected by HIV and AIDS can share experiences, as a way of reducing stigma and getting people talking. Editor Susan Smuts comments, “I don’t know whether this is activism or good journalism. Maybe it’s a bit of both.” 

This brings forward the question of the responsibility of the media when reporting on something like HIV and AIDS. In her contribution to the journal, Mia Malan explores the tension between using correct terminology and expressing concepts in the plain language of journalistic writing that readers and listeners can easily understand. Though some journalists argue that HIV requires coverage the same as any other issue, without all of the sensitivity, Malan counters, “The difference is, of course, that the HIV epidemic is the most politicised and stigmatised disease the world has ever seen. Moreover, the manifestation of this is especially prevalent in a country like South Africa…. Language and politics are intertwined; language shapes beliefs and influences behaviour.”

When we think of press freedom, we must also think about access. When it comes to media, children and youth are often forgotten, yet when given a chance are leading advocates on children’s rights and health. Already marginalised communities, such as rural women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, and migrants, are often under reported, or reported on in ways that encourage stereotypes and discrimination. Encouraging access to media for these groups, and building capacity of journalists to report on them, is part of a free and impartial media.

Looking ahead to the opportunities provided by new media and technologies, there is likely increasing civic journalism. People are beginning to create their own media and communication, through such outlets as blogs, podcasts, and You Tube. As access to technologies increase, they provide even more opportunities for access to information. Yet, the unregulated world of the internet, presents its own challenges for objectivity, bias, and fair reporting.

Though the Gender and Media Diversity Journal, explores many of these issues, the recent launch of the Gender and Media Diversity Centre will provide ongoing opportunities for media and activists (and those who may consider themselves both) to engage in debate and dialogue, share ideas, and create partnerships. Through this kind of interaction, both media and activists will strengthen their abilities to play their respective, and evolving, roles.

- Deborah Walter is the Editor at of the Gender and Media Diversity Journal. She can be reached at

- Picture courtesy of National Commission for the Promotion of Equality

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