Reporting on powerlessness to hold power accountable

Driven by the desire to hold power accountable, journalists often find themselves drawn to carefully orchestrated pronouncements, meticulously staged events, and crafted statements from those in power. Their attention focuses on scrutinising the actions of politicians, dissecting the decisions of CEOs and examining the policies of policymakers. While this attention to power centres is integral, genuine accountability reporting necessitates a departure from this exclusive focus on those in positions of authority.

Accountability reporting requires a nuanced understanding of power, one that extends beyond the corridors of privilege and examines the lives of those disproportionately impacted by imbalanced power structures. This demands a recognition that power is not confined to the sterile confines of boardrooms or the grand halls of government; it permeates every facet of society, shaping the destinies of those who silently bear the weight of its influence.

Holding power accountable means understanding the consequences of power, not just its manifestations. To truly grasp power, journalists must redirect their gaze towards its shadowy margins, where communities bear the brunt of unjust policies, voices are stifled by systemic inequities, and struggles are eclipsed by the blinding glare of power’s spotlight. This shift in perspective is not about abandoning the scrutiny of those in power; it is about recognising that power’s impact extends far beyond the individuals who wield it, shaping the lives of those often unheard and unseen.

Embracing powerlessness to comprehend power

The term “powerlessness” often carries a negative connotation, hinting at weakness or inaction. However, comprehending powerlessness is not about surrendering to defeat or accepting marginalisation; it is about acknowledging power’s limitations and recognising the profound impact of systemic forces on individuals and communities.

Powerlessness is not merely the absence of power; it is the active suppression of power, the silencing of voices and experiences, and the systematic exclusion of certain groups from decision-making processes and access to resources.

The media and its actors are in positions of power, so in many ways can be seen to align with the privileged. Therefore, there must be a conscious effort to look powerlessness in the eye through the lens of the camera, the page and the microphone. To do so, journalists must constantly question structures, explain what seems obvious and confront the stark reality of inequality.

Questioning, demystifying and empowering

Journalists must be willing to challenge systems, to investigate the status quo, and to expose the root causes. They must not shy away from examining uncomfortable truths, even when they challenge their biases or assumptions. Journalists must also be willing to explain what may seem obvious, to provide context and background information that empowers readers to grasp the intricate dynamics of power and its impact on society. They should be educators, not just reporters, helping to demystify complex issues and empowering citizens to make informed decisions.

Journalists shoulder the responsibility of confronting the stark realities of social, economic, and political disparities, transcending their portrayal as mere statistics or abstract notions. These disparities aren’t distant concepts but living, breathing realities shaping the daily existence of countless individuals. Through their reporting, journalists can humanise the abstract, transforming statistics into real-life stories that resonate with readers and viewers. They can amplify the voices of those who are often unheard, giving them a platform to share their experiences and advocate for change.

Accountability reporting through the lens of powerlessness is about capturing the narratives of those caught in the throes of adversity, struggling relentlessly to make ends meet within the confines of economic hardship. It’s bringing into focus the systematic barriers that deny avenues for progress and advancement to vast segments of society, painting a vivid picture of missed opportunities and unrealised potential.

Unmuting the powerless

Journalists often claim the noble title of being the “voice for the voiceless,” acting as a bridge between the marginalised and the powerful. However, this self-proclaimed role is not always fulfilled. While some journalists dedicate their careers to amplifying the voices of the powerless, others fall short of this ideal, inadvertently perpetuating the very structures of power that silence these voices.

One of the primary reasons for this disconnect is the lack of genuine understanding and empathy for the experiences of the powerless. Journalists often approach these issues with a sense of detached curiosity, treating them as mere stories to be reported rather than lived realities. This superficial engagement fails to capture the depth of the struggles faced by the powerless, leaving their perspectives misrepresented.

To truly embody the role of the “voice for the voiceless,” journalists must engage in a more holistic approach to their work. This is not merely reporting on issues of powerlessness; it is about transforming the power dynamics that perpetuate these injustices. Journalists must not only give voice to the powerless but also empower them to become agents of change in their own lives. By embracing powerlessness, journalists can help pave the way for genuine accountability and contribute to creating a future where power is used for equitable and inclusive change.

ACME Mwalimu

The African Centre for Media Excellence's training unit, known as ACME Mwalimu, scours news platforms and online resources to curate the best training tips and resources for journalists and media organisations, empowering them to become impactful contributors to public debate and development. If you have a training tip or question, you can reach out to ACME Mwalimu at training[at]

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