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February 08 2011

23:15

What we’re watching: two takes on documentary

Lately, we’ve been pondering the full range of documentary projects. From a storytelling standpoint, “Hell and Back Again” represents one end of the spectrum. The film, which won the documentary award at Sundance this year, tracks a soldier through combat, injury and back home to North Carolina. Watch the brief trailer and see a gallery of filmmaker Danfung Dennis’ powerful images from the movie.

A more experimental approach to delivering documentary, “HIGHRISE” is a multi-city, multi-year project recording “the human experience in global vertical suburbs.” Under the direction of documentarian Katerina Cizek, “HIGHRISE” uses layered images to recreate 360-degree views of participants’ living spaces, and offers audio of them talking about life in apartments and projects from Beruit to Phnom Penh and Chicago to Havana. Viewers can scroll through people or places, and click on rooms in a virtual highrise to find the apartment of a real person somewhere in the world. See the trailer or visit the site.

Even simple talking-head video posted by Amnesty International on the 25th anniversary of disgraced ruler Jean-Claude Duvalier’s 1986 flight from Haiti underlines the power of the human voice in storytelling. Since Duvalier recently returned home, it’s worth noting video’s instantaneous ability to remind viewers of just what life was like prior to his departure (via @PulitzerCenter).

And on the lighter (and interactive) side, “The Johnny Cash Project” is a crowdsourced tribute to the Man in Black – or, as the project’s site calls it, a “global collective art project.” Working within a framework of images and using a tool on the site, participants create their own portraits of Cash, which will eventually be included in a music video (via @MediaStorm).

An image from Danfung Dennis' "Hell and Back Again"

June 02 2010

12:34

#Amnestyawards: A reminder of the content in the paywall chatter

Ahead of yesterday’s Amnesty Media Awards 2010 ceremony, shortlisted nominee duckrabbit (@duckrabbitblog) tweeted:

If last year is anything to go by … take a valium before heading up to the #amnestyawards … sobering stuff

And they were right: the audience saw harrowing images and heard troubling narration, as the introduction to each of the shortlisted pieces of human rights journalism, across 10 categories in digital, print and radio.

It was the BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s Justin Webb, presenting the national newspaper prize, who reminded us of the substance behind the ‘future of journalism’ conversation. Joking that he’d undergone hardship in his own reportage (sometimes they went half-an-hour without a snack on the Obama campaign trail!), he said it was testimony to the diligence of the shortlisted contenders that they had completed this journalism. They, he said, had put aside the “chatter” of the organs for which they work and “talk of paywalls” to pursue their subject matter.

It was a particularly timely day for the awards – Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen mentioned the seizure of the Gaza flotilla activists by Israel, and the media’s vital role in reporting events. A special award for journalism under threat has been given to independent media workers in Burma, to raise awareness of the plight of 2,200 political prisoners held by the ruling junta, including more than 40 journalists.

In addition to the main prizes, two young entrants were named Young Human Rights Reporter of the Year winners, in a new prize set up by Amnesty International UK in collaboration with the Guardian Learnnewsdesk. Their pieces on bullying and child detention at Yarl’s Wood can be read on the Guardian site, along with the other shortlisted entries.

I’ve link to some of the shortlisted videos shown last night. Not all content is available to watch/listen in full, but even these snippets are a reminder of the kind of content that should be protected – and  prioritised – in the trade and in discussions on the future of journalism.

Gaby Rado Memorial Award

International Television and Radio

Nations and Regions

National Newspapers

Digital Media

Periodicals – Consumer Magazines

Periodicals – Newspaper Supplements

Photojournalism

Radio

Television Documentary and Docudrama

Television News

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February 01 2010

16:00

Denise Searle: Blogging or flogging? Why NGOs face challenges in embracing the Internet’s potential

[The Internet opens up new means of communications for major NGOs. But does it also make their position vulnerable to a new breed of web-native upstarts, who understand the power of technology more fully? Denise Searle, who has worked with some of the world's best known NGOs, explores that in this, the final part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

At the offices of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph in London during December 2008, the customary Christmas and New Year parties were supplemented by a round of often tearful farewell drinks as staff at the respected broadsheet newspapers reeled from the third round of redundancies in two years. The Telegraph Media Group’s desire to invest in its online activities was a key reason for the cuts in print journalist jobs, with the global economic downturn adding to the pressures.

The Telegraph is far from alone. Most UK and U.S. newspapers and news broadcasters have been building up their online presence, which has usually involved spreading editorial resources more thinly to create round-the-clock multimedia online outputs from existing or even reduced staff complements. In January 2009, the Los Angeles Times announced that it was axing 300 jobs, 70 of them in the editorial department, which had already been virtually halved in size over the past five years. The timing was surprising. According to Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor at the City University of New York and writing in The Guardian newspaper, the LA Times editor, Russ Stanton, had claimed earlier that month that the paper’s online advertising revenue was sufficient to cover the entire print and online editorial payroll.

There is growing concern about the combined effect on news coverage of financial pressures and the needs of the internet. In January 2008, the UK and Ireland’s National Union of Journalists sent out an e-alert to members asking them to blow the whistle on where cutbacks are undermining journalism standards.1 The same month the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University published “What’s Happening to Our News: An Investigation into the Likely Impact of the Digital Revolution on the Economics of News Publishing in the UK.” International news is particularly vulnerable because it’s costly. According to the Reuters Institute report, there has been a large-scale cull of foreign news staff in newspapers and broadcasters in the UK and abroad. Independent Television News (ITN), a major broadcast news provider in the UK, has more than halved the number of permanent overseas bureaux and staff since 2000. ITN now allocates just five per cent of its overall news budget to a network of six foreign bureaux.

“To feed the appetite of 24/7 media platforms, news publishers increasingly rely on a range of external suppliers for the raw material of journalism,” says the report, “not only trusted wire agencies, but also the public relations industry and, more recently, citizen journalism.” It’s safe to assume that NGOs and charities could be included in the list.

While few NGOs would celebrate the loss of jobs and the squeeze on foreign news coverage, many of those involved in international humanitarian and development work are certainly eyeing up the opportunities these changes present for increasing coverage of their concerns and activities by the media, particularly on their digital/internet platforms. International NGOs have access to human interest stories, so the logic goes, so surely the content-hungry news websites can’t afford to be as choosy as their parent publishers and broadcasters have been in the past and will snap up news and features to fill the gaps left by shrinking foreign reporting teams.

Be there or be square

The reach of the internet and associated digital platforms, such as mobile phones and online social networking sites, continues to grow. According to the Internet World Stats website, which aggregates data from the International Telecommunications Union and Nielsen/NetRatings among others, more than 1.5 billion people around the world use the internet, which is 23.4 per cent of the total global population. This has grown by 305.5 percent since 2000. The fastest expansion has been in the global south and east in recent years but even mature markets such as the United States and UK continue to grow. Almost 47 million or 76 percent of people in the UK use the internet, a growth of 203.1 percent since 2000. In the United States, 228 million people use the internet, representing 74.1 percent of the population and 138.8 percent growth since 2000.

NGOs need to engage these internet users for funds and general support, and because the people they need to influence for policy change and major donations are increasingly influenced by the internet. The internet is no longer simply an alternative or accompaniment to traditional print-based communications. Internet experts point out that many “digital natives” (usually defined as people aged 18-28, largely in industrialized countries) are uncomfortable with more traditional forms of communication. In other words, they probably won’t read the lovingly produced mail shots. Even “digital immigrants” (those over 30-ish) expect their NGO of choice to have a substantial online presence.

Plus, the internet theoretically enables NGOs to communicate directly with existing and potential supporters, without having their messages filtered by the media or the commercial prospecting agencies that many use to recruit new members or supporters via the telephone or on the street. This must be a benefit, given that the 2009 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer (an annual international survey commissioned by Edelman Public Relations, based on 30-minute interviews with 4,475 individuals aged 25-64) showed that trust in nearly every type of news outlet and spokesperson is down from last year — apart from NGOs. In fact, NGOs are the most trusted institutions globally: 54 percent of the older part of the age group surveyed (35 to 64 year olds) trust them to do what’s right. If only NGOs could reach their publics, they’re bound to be won over by their case. Simple. Or is it?

The problem is that today’s fast-moving internet isn’t an easy fit for all NGOs. In the early days, in what we now realize was merely “web 1.0,” businesses and non-profits alike used their websites as shop windows for electronic versions of the sorts of materials they published anyway. There were probably some pictures and maybe a bit of video and audio and even a “contact us” facility, but on the whole the relationship with audiences was on a “read (or watch) only” basis. Through a gradual process of increasing interactivity, “web 1.0″ has morphed into “web 2.0,” which is based on participation, and where many users expect to share their own content and ideas and be listened to. The underlying technology is largely the same, but more people are using it in many different ways. Organizations that are known and respected in the real world often face competition for attention from a range of other sources and perspectives in the virtual world.

What’s more, this dynamic online environment continues to change. In July 2008, the U.S. business website Forbes.com tapped the internet analysts Nielsen Online to get a sense of where and how U.S. residents are migrating on the web. They drew up a list of the 20 most trafficked websites, compared with three years earlier, and found that the top slot went to Google, with 123 million unique visitors a month, seven million more than Yahoo, the second most popular site, and 62 per cent more than the 76 million unique visitors Google attracted three years previously, when it ranked fourth.

The survey indicates that the Internet is still about searching for information. Out of the top five sites most visited in the United States — Google, Yahoo, MSN, Microsoft’s home page, and AOL Media Network — four are portals to other websites. This means that: “web surfers are ‘leaning forward,’ looking for something in particular, versus ‘leaning back’ as browsers of traditional print publications do,” concludes Forbes.com. “In theory, that dynamic should spell opportunity for online enterprises peddling products and information that truly meet specific needs, be it t-shirts or health advice (if only it weren’t for the myriad competitors, now on similar footing, trying to do the same thing).”

The United States’s sixth most popular web destination is YouTube, the user-generated-video site, with 75 million unique visitors a month, each of whom spent an average of one hour per visit. In fact user-generated content of all sorts has redrawn the digital map. Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia, jumped to 9 on the list from 57 three years ago. Online social networks are also popular, with Facebook ranking 16 on Nielsen’s list with more than 34 million unique visitors, compared with 4 million in July 2005, when it ranked 236, according to the Forbes.com article. The picture is similar in the UK, which has the highest level of online social networking in Europe.

I’m speaking but are you listening?

“We’ve only just begun the journey of involving readers,” said Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of Guardian News Media, in an interview in the February 2009 edition of UK Press Gazette, in which he described the group’s move to new premises accompanied by a switch to 24/7 multimedia publishing across The Guardian, The Observer and guardian.co.uk (with no compulsory redundancies).2 The Guardian has the UK’s most popular newspaper website, with 26 million unique users a month.

“I think journalists are going to get much more at ease with the idea that we don’t know it all, and that we’ve got incredibly intelligent readers who live and breathe The Guardian and who love the opportunity to get involved with it,” Rusbridger said. “What that means in terms of the systems and how you edit and aggregate all that, I don’t know — but that’s what makes it so interesting.”

All this indicates that if humanitarian and development NGOs want to attract and retain visitors in the increasingly crowded and competitive online world, and turn them into supporters, they need to provide timely, easy-to-find information, genuinely involve their audiences, and keep up with the latest trends. This is a tall order, particularly when many of the web destinations competing for their audiences’ attention have commercial muscle behind them.

Feeding the voracious internet beast takes extensive human and technical resources. While most NGOs have established substantial web teams, they are not geared up for 24/7 content provision and updating — and probably should not be, given that their core business is in a different field, such as tackling poverty or defending human rights. Plus, the fast turnaround and response demanded by the internet (which is putting a strain on the quality of output from traditional print and broadcast newsrooms) conflicts with the longer-term, planned activities of most humanitarian and development NGOs, and simply could not be met by the lengthy approval processes most NGOs operate for any kind of external communication. The contradictions are illustrated in “Virtual Promise,” a survey published in 2008 by the UK think tank and research consultancy nfpSynergy into charities’ use of the internet. Of 376 organizations surveyed, 80 percent said they used their website for “news and regular updates” yet only 25 percent said they updated their website on a daily basis.

There’s also a difference in perspective and culture, particularly when it comes to involving supporters and giving them a voice. The big humanitarian and development NGOs work on the basis that supporters give them money and trust them to spend it wisely in working to achieve their mission. It’s genuinely difficult to decide how much information and transparency to provide around an NGO’s work and objectives, and the strategic decisions that have shaped the particular activities and approach being undertaken. How should these processes be translated for the digital sphere to make them accessible in a sound-bite culture while not being misleading over the challenges of building rural livelihoods, protecting biodiversity, ending the arms trade and so on? How much detail can internet visitors be expected to absorb?

It’s all very well having snappy, web-friendly outreach or media and commercial advertising activities that drive audiences to the website. But when people get there, very often they find that the optimistic, passionate promotional materials have dissolved into stark content about suffering, hardship, injustice, and the other myriad issues NGOs are dealing with. Or conversely, they are presented with slight web features that imply that the problems are all being dealt with.

NGOs have made real efforts over recent years to engage with the internet beyond simply building an attractive website. A visit to Facebook brings up more than 500 results for Oxfam, including pages from various Oxfam national chapters, pages on specific campaigns and links from supporters. Some are current, while others are old and/or out of date. There are similar Facebook presences for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Save the Children, Medecins sans Frontieres and other major international NGOs. On Youtube there are 3,860 videos about Amnesty International, both official videos and those posted by supporters. [Please note that the number of videos cited was current as of the time this essay was written in 2009; the numbers today may be substantially different.] The situation is similar for Oxfam (2,460 videos), Greenpeace (12,700 videos), Save the Children (13,900 videos), and Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (286 videos). NGO content on MySpace includes videos, weblinks and dedicated pages by the organizations themselves and supporters, and again the big players are there, including Greenpeace (101,000 entries); Oxfam (30,000 entries); Amnesty International (38,100 entries); Save the Children (207,000 entries); and Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (around 15,000 entries).

But go to most large NGOs’ websites and it’s near impossible to find information about the volume of visitors to the website or numbers of supporters. For example, Amnesty International USA quotes 2.2 million global supporters for the total Amnesty movement but doesn’t give its own national membership (although Amnesty International UK does give its 230,000 “financial supporters”). Others don’t even do that, including Medecins sans Frontieres UK and Liberty. Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK, and Amnesty International USA give financial figures (Amnesty International USA and Save the Children UK publish their audited report and accounts). Greenpeace US provides Greenpeace International accounts. But all take some finding.

This is not very web 2.0. Digital natives and frequent internet users tend to expect more information about what an organization is doing and who else is involved to decide whether they are in good company. Peer feedback and activities are key drivers of web activity, hence the popularity of blogging and the “swarm of bees” effect that can drive huge numbers of users to view a video on YouTube or to sign up to a particular petition.

Promoting impact

The Kiva website, which enables users to give loans to businesses in the developing world via local microfinance partners, has an “Impact This Week” box on its home page that tells you how many people have made a loan in any one week, and how many new lenders there are. There’s also easy-to-find information on different lending teams, now many are in them and how much they’ve loaned. Kiva enables lenders to see the actual project they will be supporting and to monitor progress. Avaaz.org, the international civic organization that promotes activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, and religious conflicts, states at the top of its homepage how many actions have been taken since it was set up in January 2007 (15,277,937 as of January 2010). Prominently, on its “about us” page, it says: “In less than three years, we’ve grown to over 3.5 million members, and have begun to make a real impact on global politics.” The front page of the U.S. liberal public policy advocacy and political action group Moveon.org says: “Join more than 5,000,000 members online, get instant action updates and make a difference.” It also gives clear facts about actions and money in the website’s “” section.

It is obviously easier for small, single (or limited) issue groups to provide this kind of apparently transparent data than larger, more complex, long-established NGOs whose claims are likely to be more closely scrutinized by their own members as well as outside audiences and regulatory bodies. Who is going to count whether Avaaz actually has more than 3.5 million members in every nation of the world? Whereas Amnesty International spent a couple of years painstakingly compiling the returns from its 80 offices round the world before releasing the figure of 2.2 million members, supporters, and subscribers. Even so, big NGOs do have a way to go before they are truly embracing the spirit of the internet.

nfpSynergy’s 2007 fundraising benchmark survey of 109 charities showed that online fundraising raises on average just 2 percent of total voluntary income. This compares with supporter development and retention raising 27 percent of voluntary income and major donors raising 7 percent. Ironically, online fundraising is highly cost-effective, raising an average of around £10 for every £1 spent on direct costs, including salaries. “Most charities have not started to implement best practice and maximize their income. Most are missing the opportunities from both web and email communications and from the various ways of collecting online income,” wrote independent charity ICT and internet consultant, Sue Fidler, in Third Sector Magazine.

She reckoned the reasons are often simple: charities do not have the time, the resources or the knowledge to get the various tools and mechanisms in place, or the management buy-in to get more resources. But for many there is a more frustrating reason: they have the tools but are not using them to sell the charity’s proposition. If the route to donate and the ask are wrong, the tools won’t help.

“We have learnt that having a donate button isn’t enough. The concept of ‘build it and they will come’ hasn’t worked,” Fidler wrote. “Until we learn to sell ourselves online, using our stories to engage our supporters while offering them every opportunity to help, we will not see an increase in online income.”

Nick Aldridge, Chief Executive Officer of MissionFish, is slightly more optimistic. In the forward to MissionFish’s June 2008 report, “Passion, Persistence, and Partnership: the Secrets of Earning More Online,” he states that “Charities of all sizes are becoming more confident and sophisticated in using the web to attract, engage, and develop potential supporters. They are learning that success depends on the passion and persistence they show, and the strength of the partnerships they’re able to form.” User-generated content, online auctions, affinity schemes, and e-commerce are all growing in popularity.

“Those representing and speaking for charities online are finding that they need to engage the public in less formal and more personal dialogue. They must be prepared to take part in lively real-time discussions about the value of their work, rather than posting out their annual reports,” he emphasized. “It’s clear that an online strategy now involves far more than ‘click here to donate.’ Charities must recognize the difference that online interaction can make in helping them to achieve their goals, and incorporate online work in all their major initiatives.”

However, Aldridge concluded that there’s still a long way to go. “Staff who specialize in internet communications or fundraising often feel sidelined, and have a hard time explaining the potential of their work to managers. Meanwhile, many small charities still struggle to develop the tools and content they need for a basic online presence.”

Only a few years ago a senior member of the governance board of a major international NGO demanded to know who had approved the NGO’s entry in Wikipedia and why they hadn’t had it changed because the tone wasn’t as flattering as she would have liked. At that time it was pretty remarkable that she was actually aware of Wikipedia. It’s hard to envision such a conversation happening now. Yet awareness of the internet doesn’t equate to understanding or benefit. Most NGOs accept that they must exploit the potential of the digital sphere if they are to stand a chance of achieving their mission but many still believe that their core business can function as usual, which is where media organizations used to be. Websites were seen as an add-on to the main activities of publishing or broadcasting, which is now not the case, as illustrated by the current job cuts and concerns about quality of journalism.

How long will it be before international development and humanitarian NGOs see their supporter base eroded by digital native organizations such as Kiva and Avaaz, plus numerous national and local advocacy and development groups that can apparently provide digital native audiences with direct, tangible ways of making a difference? And will it stop there if governments and major institutional donors start fully embracing the internet as a way of doing business? They are already listening to online constituencies. Will these digital-savvy communities start mobilizing online to ask hard questions about why, despite years of effort, international development and humanitarian NGOs have not made poverty history or achieved social justice? And how will they be answered?

Denise Searle is an independent communications consultant. Her current projects include helping to develop a digital strategy for Oxfam and serving as part of the coordinating group for the communications strand of aids2031. She previously served as senior director of communications with Amnesty International and chief of UNICEF’s Internet, Broadcast and Image Section.

Notes
  1. Interview with Miles Barter, campaigns officer, National Union of Journalists, January 2009.
  2. UK Press Gazette. “Inside the Guardian’s New Home.” February 2009, p. 34.

December 07 2009

16:08

Saving us from noise that kills: NGOs as news coordinators in a networked public sphere

[Journalists concerned about the future of the news business tend to worry about important issues receiving a decreasing amount of coverage. But what if the problem is less the amount of coverage but the assembling, filtering, and sorting of that coverage? Is there a role for a new class of news coordinators? Our friend Lokman Tsui of the University of Pennsylvania looks at the role nongovernmental organizations are playing in directing people's attention — the scarcest good in the new media economy. This is the fourth part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

The question of how news is produced is in essence a question that asks how we come to know the world. It is a crucial question to ask if we want to understand how and why people, events, countries, and whole continents are in the focus or left out of the news.1

News organizations have traditionally been the primary producer and distributor of news. However, as traditional news organizations lose the resources or the capacity to do this, particularly for international news, we start to see that NGOs are asked, or act deliberately, to take on even more responsibility in ensuring that the public does not tune out the rest of the world. Apart from the question of resources, Manuel Castells2 argues that in a globalized environment, NGOs are becoming indispensable in filling the gaps that appear when problems are increasingly transnational in nature and grow beyond the sovereign realm of nation-states.

It is important to understand how this process unfolds: It is not an exaggeration to say that the attention that NGOs can bring to a crisis situation can be a matter of life and death, as attention of the world is often strongly correlated with humanitarian aid and assistance.3 While it may not always be their primary mission, for many NGOs, allocating resources for strategic communication and becoming more integrated with the news landscape has therefore become an indispensable part of their work.4 Their role is to make sure that those without voice do not go silent, because as Medecins Sans Frontieres has said: “We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.”

For those concerned about how the world comes to know itself, the Internet offers a manifold of opportunities for NGOs that have yet to be explored and understood.

How do NGOs use the Internet to change the way we learn about the world?

Of course, the Internet does not unequivocally affect all NGOs in the same way. Some NGOs are much better equipped to deal with technological change than others. New technologies can have disruptive effects to organizations. Christensen5 has helped us understand why powerful organizations oftentimes fail to adapt to new technologies such as the Internet. He calls these disruptive innovations, because they do not only allow organizations to make their existing processes more efficient, but they also force organizations to drastically rethink their underlying processes. Price et al.6 have referred to this distinction as one between adaptation and transformation.

Technologies are disruptive in the sense that they ask organizations not just to adapt to the new technology, but force them to transform, or face eventual irrelevance or even extinction. For NGOs, just as for mainstream news organizations, the Internet is a disruptive technology that provides both new opportunities and challenges.

In an earlier essay in this series, Fenton suggests that it is the size of the NGO, and accordingly, the amount of resources available, that is a key factor in determining whether an NGO is able to take advantage of the Internet or not. She argues that in our haste to understand the impact of the Internet on NGOs, we too often focus on the large and well-known NGOs, and fail to understand that smaller, resource-poor NGOs are often unable to seize on the opportunities afforded by new technologies. Christensen’s theory on disruptive innovation offers a counter argument: that in fact, large organizations fail to take advantage of new innovations precisely because of size and institutional legacies.

Leveraging the Internet: Legacy NGOs vs. networked NGOs

What determines how an NGO can take advantage of the potential that the Internet offers in a transformative way? Whether NGOs are able to seize on the opportunities that the Internet affords is not so much a matter of size or scale. Rather, it is the ability to leverage the network that shapes to what extent the NGO can capitalize on new technologies.

Understanding the Internet as a disruptive innovation allows us to make a distinction between NGOs that adapt to the Internet, which I refer to as legacy NGOs, and NGOs that are transformative, which I refer to as networked NGOs. Legacy NGOs have optimized their work processes to a technological environment from a previous era, and are now facing institutional legacies as they try to reform and take advantage of the Internet. NGOs that have formed in the wake of the Internet are better positioned to take advantage of the transformative capabilities of new technologies and optimize their processes for a networked public sphere. Yet, the networked NGOs often do not get the attention they deserve. We tend to focus on how legacy NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, make the jump to the digital world. Yet these legacy NGOs do not represent all NGOs. Otherwise we risk turning a blind eye and fail to understand the rise of a range of networked NGOs.

Perhaps at this point a disclaimer is justified. The distinction between legacy and networked NGOs is not a hard and fast rule. Legacy NGOs certainly have the potential to, and do, utilize new technologies to their advantage. They might even form initiatives entirely built around new technologies, such as Witness has done with The Hub. The point is also not that networked NGOs are “better” than the legacy NGOs or that they will replace them. But certainly when we consider how NGOs are becoming more integrated in a transforming news production process, we cannot be content with just paying attention to the prototypical, well-known and more established NGOs. We need to understand how the networked NGOs work alongside legacy NGOs and mainstream media, and together form a networked public sphere.

From silence to noise: the emergence of a networked public sphere

Legacy NGOs are built around practices of content creation that are embedded in an institutional culture and framework that is optimized to deal with a scarcity of voices in the traditional broadcast landscape. They ensure nobody goes silent and that people have a voice on their platform. Over time, they have established an elaborate infrastructure that allows for the verification and legitimatization of the reports they produce, including a well-trained and knowledgeable staff of experts who do their own investigative reporting.

The operative model that is based on silence — a scarcity of voices in the traditional news system — is now under challenge with the arrival of the Internet. “Everybody is a journalist” might be a hyperbole, but it is clear that a lot more people now have a voice, if we consider that even Buddhist monks in Burma, one of the least connected countries in the world, have been able to bring matters to international attention by capturing pictures of protests using camera phones. While the increasing accessibility of technology increases the opportunity for those previously without a voice to speak, NGOs still have an important role to play.

Today, however, the importance of NGOs is no longer exclusively located in speaking for others — in making sure they don’t go silent. Instead, we have gone from a situation where silence can kill to one where noise can kill. It is easier for people to speak, but that does not mean that they are actually being listened to. To the contrary, with information, voices, and testimonies becoming ever more abundant, the most powerful story is in danger of getting lost in information noise. Therefore, the role of NGOs is increasingly to prevent voices from being drowned out, and to bring back signal into the noise.

I draw on three case studies — The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices — to help understand the emerging networked public sphere, and the implications of this for how we learn about the world.

The Hub is an initiative of the human rights organization Witness. Founded by Peter Gabriel in the wake of the Rodney King incident, Witness strongly believes that participatory video can make a difference in bringing attention to issues of human rights. The Hub, launched in 2008, can perhaps be best described as a YouTube for human rights. What sets The Hub apart from YouTube are two services that are particularly relevant in the human rights context: Witness pays special attention to the safety and security of its users and provides a proper context for videos, a crucial element that ensures we are able to make sense of the brutalities on which it often reports.

Ushahidi, Swahili for “testimonial,” was started by Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh in response to the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008 (for Ushahidi’s coverage of this, see here. The project allows people to submit reports through mobile phone, email, or the web. These reports are then aggregated and curated using Google Maps. In short, it is a crowdsourcing tool that makes it easy for people to share what they are witnessing. Individually, they might not be able to make sense of what is going on, but collectively, they are able to give insight into a crisis situation that significantly extends beyond what the mainstream media or individual citizen media reports are able to cover. As Meier states, “nobody knows about every human rights violation taking place, but everyone may know of some incidents.”

The third case study, Global Voices, was founded by Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman in 2004 as a direct response to the decline of foreign news, and in recognition of the untapped potential of blogs to help us understand the world. Theoretically, there is more information than ever before, from all over the world. However, this does not mean that all of this information is immediately accessible: language barriers and lack of context often mean that potential audiences either can’t access, or don’t understand, what is being said. The sheer amount of information available presents another challenge. This is where Global Voices comes in. Global Voices translates and contextualizes the important or interesting conversations for other parts of the world to read.

If everyone can speak, how do we know whom to listen to?

The functions of these, and other, networked NGOs are best understood as news coordination rather than news gathering. Coordination is the process of establishing order and organization in the information chaos in a concerted way. Coordination is not a new function — legacy NGOs and news organizations have fulfilled this function in the past and continue to do so — but new technologies allow the networked NGOs to give a different twist to it, one whose implications have to be understood in the context of a larger and networked public sphere.

If everyone can speak, how do we know whom to listen to? Indeed, Global Voices asks us, even challenges us: “The world is talking. Are you listening?” NGOs have always played a crucial role in making sure people had a voice, speaking on behalf of them. But they now increasingly have to make sure people are being heard. They are a crucial intervention in solving the problems that come to exist in situations of information overload and fragmentation of voices — that is, they bring signal back into the noise through news coordination.

The Hub — the name says as much — aims to become the central place for human rights multimedia content. Ushahidi fulfills the function of a hub in its own way by inviting users to share testimonials — testimonials that otherwise would be fragmented, but are now presented in a single, central, and orderly location. And Global Voices aggregates a range of perspectives from different bloggers around the world, offering us perspectives we otherwise would not get in one central place.

Networked NGOs whose production models are based on user participation might help us better understand the dynamics of how distant events are brought to our attention. They provide an alternative perspective, one that recognizes the possibility and the need for other cultures to bring matters to our attention in their own voice, rather than the ones we decide they should have.

In order to effectively coordinate, one must become a central player in the network. What The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices realize is that in a networked public sphere, one becomes a central player by allowing their content to be shared by being open, collaborative, and networked. Global Voices encourages citizen media and news organizations to make use of their content — through legal means (putting a Creative Commons license on their content) and technological means (providing RSS feeds that can easily be incorporated into other websites). More conventional news organizations such as The New York Times, Reuters, and Yahoo! News have adopted, included, and linked to Global Voices content on their news sites. Ushahidi and The Hub employ a similar strategy, making their content easily and widely available through legal and technological means. Redfield (2006) argues that advocacy has evolved from the individual to the collective level, as practiced by most NGOs. What I suggest here is that this too is evolving — from collective advocacy to a form of networked advocacy. The resulting media ecology consists of legacy and networked NGOs, citizen media, and news organizations working together.

Can we trust what we hear?

“How can we trust this?” is perhaps the most often asked question in the case of NGOs. This is understandable, since NGOs are organizations with their own agenda, operating increasingly in an environment where information is not vetted in the traditional way. Redfield7 has referred to this mix of expertise and advocacy, of finding facts in the name of values, as “motivated truth.” The issue of trust becomes even more worrisome in the case of citizen journalism and the Internet. Consider the potential of the unedited rawness of amateur photography that can instill an even greater sense of authenticity with the viewer, as noted by Susan Sontag.8 One can imagine that the personal nature of blogs and social media might also instill a similar sense of authenticity. By making available content that is potentially biased without being clearly marked as such, yet is viewed as more authentic, NGOs take on a significant responsibility. Indeed, when Witness initially asked for feedback about the idea of starting a website where any user could anonymously upload their human rights videos, many commented on the dangers and potential abuse of such an open system, the impossibility of screening every single video, the legal implications of it all. In short, many likened the plan to “jumping off the cliff.”9

A different perspective on the question of bias is provided by Hannah Arendt10, who once said that story telling reveals meaning without making the error of defining it. Her lesson suggests that perspective and meaning are perhaps more useful metaphors when considering the value of the work done by The Hub, Ushahidi, Global Voices, and other networked NGOs — that to view their work solely through the lens of accuracy is in many ways to miss the manifold new and different opportunities they offer. Herbert Gans would perhaps consider their work valuable comparable to what he has referred to as “multiperspectival” journalism.11

This is not to dismiss the importance of accurate factual information. Coordination only has value when there actually is something to coordinate. That is, the value of networked NGOs can best be understood as additional layers on top of the fundamental layer of news creation. This is not unlike the idea set forth by Boyd-Barrett and Rantanen12, who argue that news wires can be understood as being in the business of wholesale news, and national newspapers in retail news, because they customize the news they get from the wires for local audiences.

Networked NGOs do occasionally find themselves in the business of news creation — Ushahidi, for example, in covering the post-election violence in Kenya, was able to cast a wider net, receiving reports from areas that were covered neither by citizen journalism blogs or mainstream media. Ushahidi was not only getting information quicker than any other media outlet, it was also doing so in areas where news organizations were simply not present. But arguably news creation is not where the primary value of networked NGOs resides. Networked NGOs are but part of a larger ecology and still need the help of other organizations, particularly the legacy NGOs and mainstream media. Indeed, Zuckerman, in an essay that will appear later in this series, warns us against the dangers of relying on foreign news from a barren news ecology that only consists of the motivated truth of particular NGOs.

Thoughts for discussion

We are going from a situation where silence kills to one where increasingly also noise kills. The NGO landscape is adapting and transforming: the job of NGOs is no longer just to speak for others, but increasingly also to make them heard. In the face of new technologies, a range of networked NGOs have appeared, including The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices, whose function occasionally is news gathering, but whose value is best understood as news coordination.

Yet, more than ever, we depend on a multi-varied ecology consisting of mainstream news organizations, citizen media, legacy and networked NGOs, to keep us abreast of what is happening elsewhere in the world. In a networked public sphere, no one organization is necessarily “better” at performing the function of educating and informing; rather, they must all work together in order to bring back signal into the noise.

A better and stronger signal can only be generated through coordination if the operative models are based on openness and collaboration. A better and stronger signal also only makes sense on a collective and networked level. Moeller13 has coined the idea of compassion fatigue that is the result of the increased competition for attention. If we accept her premise, then the public only has a limited capacity to listen. Instead of every NGO each vying, even screaming, for attention from audiences, we should give consideration to the possibility of a networked public sphere where content is coordinated and contextualized, where amplification happens on the network level.

Lokman Tsui is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard in 2008-09. His dissertation tries to answer the question of how the world comes to know itself by examining the impact of citizen journalism on global news production. He is coeditor of The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age (2008).

References

Arendt, H. Men in Dark Times. Harvest Books, 1970.

Boyd-Barrett, O., & Rantanen, T. The Globalization of News. London: Sage Publications, 1998.

Castells, M. “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, No. 1 (2008), pp. 78-93.

Christensen, C. The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Belle, D. “Media agenda-setting and donor aid.” In P. Norris, ed., The Roles of the News Media: Watch-dogs, Agenda-Setters and Gate-Keepers. Washington: The World Bank, 2009.

Fishman, M. Manufacturing the News. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.

Gans, H. Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Hall, S. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Meier, P. HURIDOCS09: From Wikipedia to Ushahidi, 2009.

Meier, P., & Brodock, K. Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence: Comparing Mainstream News, Citizen Journalism and Ushahidi, 2008.

Moeller, S. Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death. London: Routledge, 1998.

Fenton, N. “NGOs, New Media and the Mainstream News: News from Everywhere.” In N. Fenton, ed., New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. London: Sage, 2009.

Price, M., E., Haas, S., & Margolin, D. “New Technologies and International Broadcasting: Reflections on Adaptations and Transformations.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, No. 1 (2008), pp. 150-172.

Redfield, P. “A Less Modest Witness.” American Ethnologist 33, No. 1 (2006), p. 3.

Sontag, S. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.

Tuchman, G. Making News. New York: Free Press, 1978.

Wu, H. “A Brave New World for International News? Exploring the Determinants of the Coverage of Foreign News on US Websites.” International Communication Gazette 69, No. 6 (2007), pp. 539-551.

Notes
  1. Hall 1978, Tuchman 1978, Gans 1979, Fishman 1980, Wu 2007
  2. Castells 2008
  3. Belle 2009
  4. Redfield 2006, Fenton 2009
  5. Christensen 2003
  6. Price et al. 2008
  7. Redfield 2006
  8. Sontag 2003
  9. Interview with The Hub.
  10. Arendt 1970
  11. Gans 1979
  12. Boyd-Barrett and Rantanen 1998
  13. Moeller 1998
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