Being a Fair but Tough Judge

This year I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition judges, which means I have had my first insight into what it is like to “judge”.

From Britain’s Got Talent to The Voice, there is no shortage of television devoted to “judging” in the UK these days. A new Channel 4 programme called The Greatest Shows on Earth travels around the world and finds most audiences glued to their televisions watching shows that all involve “judging”, whether it’s for dancing, simple physique or other fantastic acts. In Kenya, my cousins regularly watch both the Kenyan and Nigerian Pop Idol. And these programmes have an impact – a singer from Gaza just won Arab Idol, prompting mass celebrations in Gaza City and East Jerusalem.

In all these programmes, even if there is active participation such as live voting, audiences still tend to rely on a set of experts in their fields to help determine who’s best and who deserves to eventually win. I find the experts quite interesting, as I often totally misread what sort of judgement they will give. I usually have little idea what to look out for.

What would x-factor be without its judges? Credit: Rocor, 2012

This time, although an expert in my own field with my background in development and my experience of blogging – I nevertheless found it difficult to work out what to look out for. As a newcomer I had very little idea of the quality of articles that would be submitted. I wondered whether I’d become a caricature of a judge. Perhaps like Simon Cowell – harsh and critical, but overly gushing when I saw great quality? Or I might be more like Will-I-Am – eccentric and random, but with a good eye for talent. I wasn’t sure. But as I began reading the entries, I realised that I had to rely on a few pointers – three in fact – to really detect the great pieces.

The first sign I looked out for was, like a judge on “The Voice” might, some depth. The article needed to have a strong degree of understanding of development issues and political challenges, beyond simply giving out aid or doing business. I looked for pieces that were rooted in personal experience – as that often showed that the writer understood that people in low-income or war-torn countries are no different in terms of their needs and aspirations compared to people in countries such as the UK.

The second sign of a top article was its degree of journalism. That might sound rather obvious, but I did see some pieces that simply reported about one project, or simply included some relevant global statistics before launching into a discussion about project outcomes or a think-piece about an issue. In my mind, these kinds of approaches were not journalistic enough. A great journalist would show signs of being inquisitive – searching websites like GiveWell or AidGrade to look at and compare the results of similar projects, including in other countries. They would use this information to illuminate what was special about this particular project or a particular political situation, providing statistics that are more specific to the country or set of people affected. I wanted to see curious and critical minds reveal themselves.

Last but not least, the third sign I looked for was a unique narrative. As those who are familiar with the competition will know, entries are usually invited along several “themes”. There were 12 themes this year, ranging from disability and women’s empowerment to the role of China in the global health agenda. Such themes are useful, as they help writers identify the major and most relevant issues, but they can also be problematic by inviting fairly well trodden, over-simplistic narratives. For example, I looked for articles that weren’t just excited about the potential for new technology, but forecast new challenges and risks of failure that such technology might face.  I looked for articles that examined some of the cultural and political elements of gender-based violence, rather than simply reporting it.  Such articles would help readers think about the future for development, not just reminisce about the horrors or pleasures of the past.

With these three pointers, I felt equipped enough to judge the entrants. But what I hadn’t anticipated was a final quality, which – having watched enough Saturday night television – I should have expected to search for. It was their “wow” quality, or, their “X-Factor”. Some of the articles I read just blew me away and defied any simple categorisation.

I’m looking forward to the next stage – where my fellow judges and I will whittle down the Top 12 to just one winner – with both excitement and fear in equal measure. Picking the winner will be like asking my cousins to decide whether the Nigerian, Kenyan, UK or Arab Pop Idol winner is best overall… I’m sure it’s going to be incredibly close!

July 2013

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