The role of journalism in eradicating poverty

Another finalist essay for our urban poverty essay competition

Dewi Seribayu Nordin Selat
Teen girl manning a shop
21 April 2019

It was many, many years ago when I had my first encounter with poverty. If you have ever been to Jakarta, you would know that it is a highly populated city filled with skyscrapers, luxury condominiums and numerous shopping malls. Then there are the densely-built shacks, informal settlements, squatters and slums - all within one city. The contrast between the rich and the poor are jarring but the people seemed unbothered by it. It was at a traffic light when a girl tapped on the window of our taxi. She looked to be about the same age as I was at that time, around 10 or 11, wearing tattered clothing with mismatched slippers that were too big for her. She asked for money and before my parents could give her some, our taxi driver waved her away. “They are a nuisance,” he said. We were quiet as we watched her walk dejectedly towards a group of children huddled together. None of them had clean clothes, they were all skinny and most importantly, none of them looked happy. I remembered thinking, “We are lucky that we don’t have this in Malaysia.”

But the young me was, in one very important respect, wrong.

We may not see the poor in our cities but that does not mean that we do not have it. The poor in our urban areas live in relative poverty and that is when people lack the minimum amount of income needed to maintain the average standard of living in the society in which they live in. A little-known fact about poverty in Malaysia is that the poor are not some static group of people living in poverty year after year. Like the rest of us, they have jobs, families and children. This is even more alarming as we are so used to thinking that people who lives in cities are economically sound. Isn’t it disturbing to think that there are people working two or three jobs but are still unable to live comfortably? Poverty is not only defined monetarily. It is a matter of exclusion to basic privileges including education, basic civil and political rights and most importantly, the lack of opportunity. Children are more than twice as likely as adults to live in extreme poverty, according to a new analysis from the World Bank Group and UNICEF. Children suffer the most as they are not able to do anything to change their standard of living and as such, they grow up deprived of the basic privileges that they should have had.

It took me about a decade to realise that poverty is prevalent in our country. This poses the question, how is it that it took me a decade to find out that this is happening in my own backyard?  It is simple, really - matters of poverty do not sell newspapers. In a market-driven industry, those who can afford media consumption affects the content in the media to a certain extent. Poverty is under-reported in the media and, when it is reported, those facing poverty are not given the space to explain what it actually means. If that is so, how will the public see and hear their struggles? How can we come together as a community and eradicate this problem if we are not presented with an accurate representation of their lives?

Media have always played a central role in shaping opinion and policy. Reports on poverty - on the rare occasion that it is reported - are filled with statistics and jargon that is incomprehensible to us. Poverty has often been presented to us in a very robotic manner, devoid of emotion and compassion. While statistics are important, it detaches the public from this issue and in some cases, the poor are dehumanised. In order for us to stir the public, we need to appeal to their sensibilities. How so? Well, words are undeniably powerful but when it is accompanied by a well-placed photograph? It compels change. Photographs are like windows that the people can peek into, windows that can connect them to the struggles and hopelessness of poverty. Photographs show them the harsh reality of the urban poor. Photographs tell us what words cannot. Photographs tell storiesPhotographs tap into the soul.

Poverty is unforgiving especially towards children. Growing up and living in this kind of environment leaves deep scars and it shapes them to be people who has a pessimistic view of the world. Poverty not only exists externally, but it can also exist within the mind and spirit of a person. Poor people struggle with hopelessness, anxiety, shame and inferiority. It is undeniable that this is the result of being voiceless and powerless. It gives an internalised worldview where many believe that they are of no value and have nothing significant to offer. As such, children grow up without aspirations and dreams. Mix with the wrong company and some may end up becoming predators and join criminal gangs. The environment that they live in is not conducive nor are there positive role models for them to build a strong moral compass from. These children not only lack moral anchoring, but they lack focus and drift through life aimlessly. But these can change if they have a voice. Without the access to a voice, those living in poverty are unable to participate directly in debate or to express their views on public policies that directly affect them. From such perspective, it can be said that the poor lack information and knowledge of actions that could be taken to improve their conditions. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s because they don’t know how.

It is imperative that we remember the fact that the future of our country lies in the youth. These children are no exception to that. How are we going to move forward as a nation if we are unable to give these children another chance at life? If this issue persists for too long, we will create the culture of poverty, passing from generation to generation. The problem of today is tomorrow. What we cannot fix in this generation will be the problem of the future.  And if we want people to see that, we must be very honest about what, and who, we mean when we talk about the poor. Be their voice. Be their change.

Dewi Seribayu wrote the winning essay “The Role of Journalism in Eradicating Poverty” for the Journalism Essay Contest of the UNICEF Urban Child Poverty and Deprivation Study of Low-Cost Flats in Kuala Lumpur. She is a 2nd year student at the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies, Universiti Teknologi MARA, majoring in Public Relations. She completed her early education at Sekolah Sri Bestari with a distinction in English, Science, Economics, Mathematics and History in her Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia. She then started her tertiary education in UiTM Alor Gajah. She graduated with a Diploma in Communication and Media in 2017 with the Vice Chancellor’s Award for academic excellence. She is an avid reader and enjoys intellectual discussions with her father. She also joins her mother for various community services in her free time. She hopes to pursue for a PhD in the future.