A few weeks ago I had the chance to meet Ethan Casey, an American journalist with a special interest in most things Pakistan. A seasoned writer who has travelled within the country more than most natives both urban and rural, his books reveal a nuanced understanding of the South Asian people and culture. To help guide his travels through the post-flood situation, a common friend had organized a casual chat with a selection of people working in the media and development sector.
It was interesting to find the conversation peppered with allusions to being gora – the overarching term encompassing white people across the world. Perhaps it was a natural defence mechanism for someone who was surrounded by serious-looking Pakistanis hailing from the development sector, to become an apologist for Stupid White Men. However, it could also have been a deliberate strategy – self-deprecatory humour is a great ice-breaker. Here, it served a dual purpose: establishing a sort of camaraderie, while accepting the existence of a barrier. I know I am an outsider, but am stepping outside my comfort zone to know more. Tell me.
In that respect, Ethan appeared to be different from the representatives of the mainstream media. Journalists preoccupied with impending doom and deadlines do not have the patience to listen, or the time to discard preset notions. The impatience may not stem from ill intentions, but can then translate into a kind of selective myopia. The fast-thinking, fast-talking folk may swoop in and sweep out of the community with a fabulous human interest story to highlight a particular issue, but have little appreciation for long term consequences. This can be damaging in two ways – either the subject of the story can become a media sensation and soak up all attention, with no change for others in need; or the subject of the story can become a media sensation, until the fickle public moves on.
This is broadly true for the local as well as international press, in spite of the existence of some very sharp, incisive minds in the community of mobile journalists. What needs to be recognised, perhaps, is that media for development is a genre in its own right. Despite the tangled nature of the relationship between the two, development is very different from political process and a journalist with years of experience talking about one may not necessarily understand the other. Development-centric journalism requires even greater sensitivity to the culture of a specific region, and the appreciation that real, sustainable change cannot be imposed overnight.
To be fair, impatience is not simply the hallmark of the journalist. It has been also been a plague of the development sector, which has taken a very long time to discover the merits of listening. Even now, academics who wax lyrical about participatory development might enter the field with set ideas which do not cross the preliminary stage of evolution. For development communication as well as development journalism, it is important to accept that as outsiders to a specific community we may have much to learn. Not only the garrulous candidate for the human interest story but the shy silent one may have much to contribute to a focus group discussion – the trick is to guide the conversation in such a way that a holistic picture can be obtained. Of course, it helps to have an insider friend to organize the “casual chat”.
Ethan Casey came to Pakistan to make a book that will sell. However, he also came looking to bridge the gap between the gora back home who doesn’t know and doesn’t care, and a people whose story he wants to tell. Whether or not he will succeed one cannot say, but it didn’t seem like a bad idea to take to scale.