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January 13 2012

21:30

Why Training Citizen Journalists Is So Important After the Arab Spring

Tomorrow (Jan. 14, 2012) marks the one-year anniversary of Tunisia's liberation from 23 years of oppression under dictator Ben Ali. It was a liberation sparked by one man's shocking public protest against injustice through self-immolation and fueled by the power of citizen journalism and social media. During the last months of 2010, Tunisians captured footage of protests and government oppression and shared them with thousands via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Within weeks, similar protests sprang up in Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries, giving birth to the Arab Spring.

With the power of the media now in the hands of every citizen with a smartphone, questions about ethics and accuracy are working their way through the journalism industry -- how do we know what we see on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter is true? Who are the media watchdogs for a form of journalism rooted in unedited immediacy?

For many of the Arab Spring countries, the press has long served as an arm of the government. As the doors to freedom and democracy swing open in the wake of revolutions, a flood of citizen journalists rushes in to take the place of media outlets held up by old regimes. But without training in ethics, accuracy and production skills, these new citizen journalists risk becoming puppets of influential businesses, organizations and new governments yet again. As Fatma Mokadmi, vice president of Tunisian PaCTE (a citizen organization formed after the Tunisian revolution to help build a democratic Tunisia), shared with me recently:

"Tunisians today believe in the role of citizen journalism in preserving freedom of speech; however, we need it to be an efficient and credible institution and not a double-edged sword."

As a photojournalist and journalism instructor, I often work with underrepresented groups to help empower them to tell their own stories through digital media. My work is part of a burgeoning trend in journalism training for the masses. Organizations like Newsmotion.org and People's Production House have teamed up to train underrepresented communities in the U.S. and abroad and distribute their stories online. Al Jazeera recently launched Somalia Speaks, a pilot project aimed at telling the stories of seldom-heard Somali citizens via SMS.

Lessons from Congo

congo3.jpg

Two years ago, as civil unrest began to brew in the Arab world, I was returning from three months of teaching multimedia journalism in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country plagued by civil war and injustice for decades. I went to teach students at a small university in war-torn North Kivu province the ethics of journalism and multimedia, so they could begin to report and share stories about their own communities with the rest of the world.

In Congo, I watched students learn to report on the truth in their communities and to tell the stories that they considered to be important, not only the stories the West has grown accustomed to hearing -- stories of rape, violence, war and corruption. In return, my students taught me about human resilience and the ability to affect change in the face of oppression. Their stories, posted on a website created for the project called Congo in Focus, reached well beyond the borders of Congo and continue to do so today.

During our three months together, my Congolese students learned that a video journalism story isn't the same thing as a Hollywood film. They learned that taking a strong photo takes time and patience; that staging photos or asking subjects to perform an action for a video shoot isn't ethical journalism. And they learned to make mistakes and learn from them. Last month, I wrote Francine Nabintu, one of my former students, to congratulate her on an election piece she photographed and reported for PBS NewsHour about the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Her response reminded me of why I love teaching in underrepresented communities:

"You inspired me in everything I'm doing today. I will never forget your encouraging us by saying 'try again.' You taught us to trust in ourselves."

The fact that NewsHour chose to highlight a story reported, written and photographed by a Congolese instead of a foreign correspondent in Congo brought the point of my teaching journalism in Congo full circle.

Here's her NewsHour story:

Speak Out Tunisia

As protests and revolutions sweep across the Arab world, citizen journalism has become the primary source of news for thousands in the Arab world. With Speak Out Tunisia, my next citizen journalism training project formed in collaboration with Tunisian PaCTE, the hope is to begin to build a network of educated, ethical journalists across Tunisia who can continue to report accurately and fairly on their country, government and communities to the rest of the world.

tunisia2.jpg

Both the Congo and Tunisia projects grew from the same basic belief -- that a free and democratic society begins with a free and fair press. But as I've collaborated with Tunisians these past few months to shape the Speak Out Tunisia project, I realize increasingly that this project will take a different form than Congo in Focus. There is momentum already. Tunisians were well-versed in using social media long before the revolution. The power of the people to capture and disseminate videos and photos via the Internet already exists. The goal of Speak Out Tunisia will be to harness that power and turn it into well-produced, ethical and balanced reporting that Tunisians can trust.

Khalil Ghorbal, a Tunisian living and working in the U.S. now and core member of Tunisian PaCTE, believes that building a network of well-trained, ethical citizen journalists is a first step toward building a strong press in Tunisia.

"The Tunisian press doesn't need to be improved because it doesn't exist yet. The media before the revolution was nothing but an arm of the dictatorship -- shaped and managed to glorify a now-ousted scarecrow. Media has an important role to play in democracy. It is the watchdog that ensures that lawmakers adhere to their oaths to serve the people."

Anne Medley is a photojournalist and videographer based in the United States. She teaches photojournalism and multimedia journalism at the University of Montana, the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute and the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. Medley has taught multimedia workshops in Europe, Africa and throughout the United States. Speak Out Tunisia is currently in its fundraising phase via Kickstarter.com. The project's goal is to reach $19,000 before January 25.

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January 19 2010

19:15

Ethan Zuckerman: Advocacy, agenda and attention: Unpacking unstated motives in NGO journalism

[If more of our news is going to produced by non-traditional sources — like NGOs who have an interest in promoting their own agenda — how can news consumers sort through their sources and figure out who to believe? Our friend Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Berkman Center asks those questions in this essay, which examines a case where a news provider with an agenda reported on an event that may not have happened. This is the seventh part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

Robbie Honerkamp is one of a few dozen Wikipedians dedicated to improving the vast online encyclopedia’s articles on African topics. He’s well qualified to carry out this work — Honerkamp stepped away from a successful career as a system administrator for Mindspring and Earthlink to help internet service providers (ISPs) in Nigeria grow and expand. His time living in Nigeria gives him an understanding of local politics and culture that gives him an advantage in writing and editing articles focused on West Africa.

When reviewing a list of recently posted articles that focused on Nigeria, Honerkamp was struck by an article titled 2005 killings of Christians in Nigeria. Honerkamp was familiar with conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities in northern Nigeria, but the article appeared to violate Wikipedia’s central principle of NPOV — neutral point of view — by focusing primarily on the killing of Christians. So he began researching the events in Demsa Village, Adamawa State, Nigeria, looking for a fuller account of events. (This author became aware of Honerkamp’s research when he contacted me for any information I might have on these incidents.)

His research quickly hit a wall. The Wikipedia article offered two sources, and the second source cited the first, a report from Compass Direct, an online newsletter associated with the “Christian Persecution” movement. Honerkamp wasn’t able to find confirmation of Compass Direct’s report in the international press, in reputable Nigerian newspapers, or in several news databases he consulted.

It’s not uncommon for news that occurs in rural African communities to go unreported. But Honerkamp was able to find reports of Christian-on-Muslim violence in a similarly rural Nigerian state a year earlier than the reported events in Demsa Village, as well as violence between ethnic groups in Adamawa State, both covered by BBC’s correspondent in Lagos. Why would these stories attract coverage, and an attack of Christians by Muslims go unreported?

An attack without an evidence trail

It took Honerkamp several months of research to find the answer: the incident simply didn’t happen, or didn’t happen the way Compass Direct reported it. The U.S. State Department’s 2005 Country Report on Human Rights Practices reported that “at least ten people were killed in clashes between farmers and herdsmen in Demsa, Adamawa State.” A paper by Emeka Okafor, an academic at the University of Ibadan, referenced “the yearly hostility between cattle rearers and local farmers in Adamawa State,” and reported that the 2005 hostilities were responsible for 28 deaths and the displacement of 2,500 people from Demsa.

In other words, the deaths in Demsa were likely the result of an ongoing conflict between Fulani herders (many of whom are Animists, not Muslims) and farmers in Demsa (whose religious affiliation is unknown, though they may well have been Muslims, as the state was an Emirate within the Sultanate of Sokoto before the borders of contemporary Nigeria were established). Honerkamp’s research uncovered that these subtleties weren’t reported in any of the outlets that picked up the story, yet Christian Persecution Information declared the story one of the Top 10 Christian Persecution News Stories of 2005.

Based on his research, Honerkamp deleted the article in question from Wikipedia. His careful research of the story may not be the norm for Wikipedia, but it points to the value of Wikipedia’s policy prohibiting original research, which requires articles to source their claims or face speedy deletion. It also serves an example of one of Wikipedia’s subtler features — its ability to improve over time. Honerkamp was searching Wikipedia for weak articles which he could improve, and researched the Demsa story in the hopes of strengthening the encyclopedia.

The story reported by Compass Direct, if incorrect, was certainly consistent with its stated mission: “Compass Direct is a Christian news service dedicated to providing exclusive news, penetrating reports, moving interviews and insightful analyses of situations and events facing Christians persecuted for their faith.” [Note: Since Ethan wrote this paragraph, Compass Direct has revised their "about" page (formerly here) to remove the first "Christian" in that quote, keeping the second. —Josh] While their website includes little information about the organization beyond their location in Santa Ana, California, they share a webserver with Open Doors International, a Christian missionary organization dedicated to outreach to “the persecuted church.”

When agendas and reporting mix

While Compass Direct makes no claims to provide unbiased, balanced news, the role of organizations such as Compass Direct in serving as news producers and distributors is becoming increasingly important, and the implications of this need to be explored. In many parts of the developing world, aid agencies and religious missions are the only organizations with international reach that report breaking news. As the world of print journalism struggles to find a new economic model, we’re likely to see more cuts in news that’s expensive to produce. This likely means fewer foreign correspondents, more reliance on newswires, and more parts of the world where no international news organizations have a presence. In other words, while we tend to think of our digital age as one of information abundance, international news, especially news from outside capital cities, increasingly face a situation of scarcity.

In the near future, international news reporting will involve fewer reports from newswires and foreign correspondents, and include more content from citizen media (reports from ordinary citizens via blogs, Twitter, photo and video-sharing services), from local media reaching international audiences through websites, and from NGOs, including religious organizations, reporting news either as their primary focus, or to support their primary activities. Such a broad set of citizen and professional reporters may help alleviate scarcity, but it also opens a set of questions about reliability, accuracy, and the challenge of triangulating between media sources. While there’s a longstanding debate about the reliability of citizen media in news reporting,1 there has been less discussion about the role that NGOs play and the reliability of the reporting they produce.

In parts of the world that are dangerous and difficult for journalists to reach, aid workers are often the only eyewitnesses to events whom journalists know how to contact. In 2008, Reuters reported a recent clash between government and rebel forces in N’Djamena with reference to only a single source, the local head of Médecins Sans Frontières, who was able to offer a total of dead and wounded, coordinating counting efforts with the Red Cross. These stories are especially common in rural areas; a 2007 Reuters story on refugee movements in northwest Central African Republic is reported with a Geneva dateline, with all details and quotes provided by a Red Cross spokeswoman who’d recently returned from the area.

These examples are not intended to suggest that either Reuters or the NGOs they rely on to report events are taking journalistic shortcuts, or that we should be suspicious of the factual content of these reports. But they do suggest that certain types of news reporting require the cooperation of NGOs who have access to first-hand information that is difficult or impossible for journalists to access. Readers, in turn, need to be aware of the needs and motivations of these organizations.

The needs of fundraising

Most relief organizations are constantly engaged in the process of fundraising. Fundraising is easiest to accomplish when disasters — natural or man-made — are widely reported on. In the wake of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the American Red Cross (ARC) saw an almost unprecedented opportunity to raise money and replenish blood banks as national media attention focused exclusively on the attacks and their aftermath.

The ARC found itself embroiled in controversy almost immediately. There were relatively few wounded in the 9/11 attacks, so the donated blood wasn’t helping 9/11 victims, but helping replenish Red Cross stocks. As early as September 12, the executive director of America’s Blood Centers contacted the ARC and asked them to stop collecting blood as the centers were over supply and in danger of having to throw out donated blood. A similar controversy opened over fiscal donations. The ARC deposited funds collected in the wake of 9/11 into a dedicated “Liberty Fund,” which quickly accumulated $543 million. Less than one third of the funds raised were spent on September 11 relief efforts. ARC President Bernadine Healy declared the organization’s intentions to spend the remaining money on preparing the organization to respond to future terrorist attacks. New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer responded by threatening legal action, and Healy resigned her post shortly afterwards.

In the wake of the 9/11 controversy, it’s easy to understand the decision of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to stop fundraising within a week of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Red Cross-affiliated organizations raised $1.2 billion in thirty days, aided in part by non-stop media coverage of the crisis. A study conducted by Reuters AlertNet, a newswire dedicated to humanitarian issues, concluded that the tsunami received more media attention within six weeks than ten critical international emergencies had received in the previous year. Had ARC not faced such harsh criticism for reallocating funds years earlier, it’s possible that the Red Cross would have continued raising funds and allocated them to other underfunded humanitarian crises.

Instead, aid organizations have figured out that they need to redirect media attention to redirect relief funds. AlertNet, in conjunction with aid agencies, academics and activists, compiles a list of “forgotten emergencies” that is designed to direct media attention to these situations in hopes of opening the pockets of individual and government donors. Some aid organizations produce similar lists. Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) called their list the “top ten underreported humanitarian stories” through 2007, explicitly linking the importance of media attention to addressing these crises.

The risks of reporters trusting NGOs

While it is vitally important to draw attention to the desperate situations faced by individuals around the world, such as the ethnic Somali people in eastern Ethiopia, reporters — faced with an increasing need to rely on humanitarian NGOs for information or access — are at risk of being manipulated by humanitarian organizations to direct attention to crises.

In November 2007, UNAIDS — an intergovernmental organization that supports itself in part through direct donations, competing for resources with AIDS prevention NGOs — acknowledged that their organization had systematically overestimated the spread of AIDS, and subsequently cut their estimate of new HIV infections by 40 percent. Critics complained that UNAIDS founder, Dr. Peter Piot, had allowed numbers to remain inflated to create a sense of urgency and raise money to support HIV/AIDS research. Public health specialist and author Ellen Epstein reacted to the UNAIDS revisions by saying, “There was a tendency toward alarmism, and that fit perhaps a certain fundraising agenda. I hope these new numbers will help refocus the response in a more pragmatic way.” The alarmism the original numbers generated had real fiscal implications: millions of dollars were spent addressing HIV/AIDS in countries that turned out to have very low incidences of the disease, like Ghana. Had UNAIDS revised their numbers earlier, it’s likely that health professionals would have refocused some funds on endemic diseases like malaria. Or those funds might never have been raised, as media attention to AIDS far outpaces attention to malaria, TB, and other diseases.

It’s a mistake to read the UNAIDS revisions as an isolated case of bad actors manipulating data to their benefit. Rather, it is better understood as a result of a system which encourages activists, researchers and relief workers to seek media attention for their causes, while asking them to serve as primary sources for reporting on the same issues. Despite strong institutional admonitions to remain neutral in the face of conflicts, the Red Cross has large, professional fundraising and communications departments, whose job it is to ensure that crises are well marketed and monetized.

A different model

Other relief organizations are more explicit about their role as advocates. MSF was founded by a group of French doctors who had worked for the Red Cross during the Biafran War. They became convinced that it was their duty not just to heal, but to speak out about Nigeria’s attack on health workers and hospitals. In 1970, they formed an organization centered on “victim’s rights,” which explicitly prioritized protecting victims over political neutrality. This responsibility to witness — termed témoignage within MSF circles — makes reporting and advocacy an explicit element of MSF’s organizational mission.2

MSF’s focus on victim advocacy sometimes leads the organization to public confrontations with UN peacekeeping missions. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, MSF has recently criticized the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) for providing insufficient protection to civilians, sparking a small wave of press stories about the failures of the UN force. While MSF’s role as an advocacy organization gives the organization reason to point to the threat to civilians in the eastern DRC, there’s a sense in which MSF’s critique is self-serving. If MONUC can’t protect MSF in the eastern Congo, MSF has to invest its own funding to hire security personnel, or cut operations. While this doesn’t invalidate MSF’s critique, it requires readers of news stories citing the MSF critique to do some careful interpretation. MSF is outraged not just on behalf of victims, but because MONUC’s failures complicate MSF efforts.

Clearly there’s a vast difference between cases in which an NGO bends the truth to advance an ideological agenda, as Compass Direct seems to have done, and cases where MSF’s valid and appropriate criticism of MONUC efforts has the secondary purpose of advocating better protection for MSF workers (and, perhaps, supporting MSF fundraising efforts). Instances like the UNAIDS case illustrate how confusing this landscape can be: Was UNAIDS reporting on the urgency of AIDS statistics a case of bending the truth to advance their goals, or legitimate advocacy to draw attention to a serious global issue?

A need for news literacy

As the world of journalism becomes more complicated and multifaceted, we’re (re)discovering the need for an important form of literacy. We need to know who we’re reading, and understand how the perspectives and agendas of those providing the information shape coverage. And we need to triangulate between sources of reporting, examining how the same events are covered — or not covered — through different eyes.

This suggested hermeneutic for newsreading isn’t actually new. Prior to the rise of citizen media, of wiki-based participatory journalism, and of NGOs acting as journalists, we would have been wise to carefully consider potential commercial and ideological biases in professional media. This moment of abrupt change in journalism brings these issues to the forefront, and opens the opportunity for us to ensure that critical reading includes an understanding of NGO motives in reporting the news, and the need to contextualize NGO reporting as we should contextualize citizen and professional reporting.

The need to contextualize and triangulate presents special challenges for reporting from disconnected parts of the developing world. If NGOs are the only accessible sources for reports from Central Africa, a precursor to triangulation may be identifying and cultivating local media in order to check NGO reports against reporting and opinion from the ground. AllAfrica.com has worked since 1997 to bring local papers in Africa online, republishing content digitally and sharing ad revenue with publishers. This sort of effort makes it more likely that researchers like Honerkamp can check reports against local reporting, though this is not always possible — Honerkamp checked AllAfrica and wasn’t able to find papers covering the Demsa incident.

The rise of strong local journalistic institutions also enables the active critique of NGO-led news coverage. Journalists like Andrew Mwenda, a passionate critic of international aid to Africa, are beginning to have a global platform for their views. Mwenda’s Kampala-based paper, The Independent, has established itself as a committed critic of local government, and is likely to be an effective critic of NGOs operating in the Great Lakes region. The paper has recently become available online, and presents careful readers with another news source for possible triangulation of NGO-sourced news.

As digital technology becomes more prevalent in the developing world, it’s possible that more individuals in undercovered parts of the globe will begin to engage with media as critics and fact-checkers. Bloggers in much of the world pride themselves on their abilities as fact-checkers, forcing mainstream media sources to be careful reporters and to retract or correct stories demonstrated to be incorrect. One approach to address the scarcity of media sources involves encouraging more citizen reporting, but also citizen critique of existing sources. When critiques are aggressive but fair, they help keep a news ecosystem healthy, preventing incorrect stories from spreading too far, and helping professional journalists discover a new set of sources and potential experts on future stories. Critically, a healthy ecosystem punishes news sources that consistently get stories wrong. The fact that Compass Direct has suffered no apparent ill effects from promoting and distributing the Demsa story suggests that its readers lack the ability, the information, or the motivation to check its stories.

Navigating the new landscape of news will require local media from developing nations available to the entire world. It will require strong local critics like The Independent. It will require us to approach reports from NGOs with a critical eye and an understanding of the financial, political and ideological dynamics that underly their reporting. It will benefit from a growing ecosystem of citizen media and from the ability of individuals to hold news providers accountable. Most critically, it requires us to hope that new types of attention amplifiers, like Wikipedia, are staffed by critical readers, like Honerkamp. Unfortunately, those informed readers are the exception, not the rule.

Ethan Zuckerman is a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. His work at Berkman focuses on the impact of technology on the developing world. With Rebecca MacKinnon, he launched Global Voices, an international citizen media community which reports on news and opinion from the developing world and works to protect free speech rights online. Prior to joining the Berkman Center, Ethan founded Geekcorps, a non-profit technology volunteer corps that pairs skilled volunteers from US and European high tech companies with businesses in emerging nations for one to four month volunteer tours. Before that, he helped found Tripod, an early pioneer in the web community space.

Photo of Ethan Zuckerman by Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

Notes
  1. See Nicholas Lemann, Amateur Hour, and Dan Gillmor, We the Media.
  2. Peter Redfield discusses the role of témoignage and MSF’s mission in “A less modest witness,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 33 No. 1, pp.3-26.

November 09 2009

15:30

Kimberly Abbott: Working together, NGOs and journalists can create stronger international reporting

[This is the first essay in our series examining the evolving relationship between NGOs and journalism, produced with Penn's Center for Global Communication Studies. Kimberly Abbott of the International Crisis Group leads off by exploring the pros and cons of established news organizations relying on NGOs for help in their reporting. We're collecting the entire series here. —Josh]

In 2005, before Ted Koppel left ABC’s Nightline, a highly respected American news program with a long commitment to international stories, he opened one of his signature broadcasts with a simple disclaimer: the story the audience was about to see was produced in partnership with a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO), the International Crisis Group. Said Koppel:

This is not how we normally cover the news. But consider it a case of coordinating interests…Nightline has had a long-standing interest in Africa over the years. But there are hundreds of stories like this across the continent. Where do you start? Also, the expense of sending a crew, producer and correspondent can be prohibitive. But [actor Don] Cheadle and a video crew were already in Kampala [Uganda]. And Nightline producer Rick Wilkinson had worked with Cheadle in Sudan. Cheadle wanted his wife and daughters to get a sense of the kind of suffering that is so widespread in Africa. The International Crisis Group wanted publicity for what is happening in Uganda. And we, to put it bluntly, get to bring you a riveting story at a greatly reduced expense. [August 23, 2005]

The following year, Nightline and Crisis Group teamed up on another project, this time in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Correspondent Jim Wooten and Crisis Group analyst Jason Stearns revisited the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, attempting to track down some of the perpetrators of killings. While Nightline had covered the genocide a decade earlier, like most American networks, it had not closely followed the developments in the region since, and did not have the contacts or the background to update the story with the nuance and depth it required. International Crisis Group, on the other hand, had analysts living in the region who spoke the local language, knew the terrain, and were well-connected. While Nightline maintained full editorial control over the story, Crisis Group helped shape it with analysis, depth and context, and the two shared the cost of the production.

At a time when mainstream media face financial constraints, the quality of foreign news coverage is suffering. This essay contends that Nightline’s collaboration with Crisis Group could serve as a model for the future. These projects were ahead of the curve for both the media and NGO worlds. Both stories were reminiscent of days when foreign news bureaus were widespread and staffed with reporters who based themselves in the field, knew the local environment, and could devote energies to investigating stories. And the pieces were win-win for everyone involved: Nightline got stories nobody else had; Crisis Group got a platform on which to discuss ongoing regional conflicts. The partnership worked well for two reasons: first, because Crisis Group enjoys a reputation as a credible, independent organization, and second, but equally important, because Nightline was clear with the audience about what was happening. As news organizations continue to cut budgets for foreign reporting, partnerships like this can ensure that the mainstream media deliver solid, comprehensive, and richly detailed foreign news stories to an under-served American audience.

The truth is, versions of such partnerships are happening now in print and broadcast newsrooms across the country, though many are reluctant to discuss them too openly. NGO-media partnerships raise significant and wide-ranging issues — from editorial integrity to security — that this paper addresses by examining the personal experiences of journalists and NGO staff. Their perspectives, gathered through interviews with the author between July 2008 and January 2009, shed new light on the growing trend, and on the potential it has to enhance the work of all those involved.

The state of the news

It’s no secret that with news-gathering budgets shrinking fast, it is becoming more difficult for major news outlets to independently cover international stories. The result is a homogenization of foreign news that often lacks depth and context, and is increasingly limited to coverage of the major wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — where American blood and dollars are heavily invested. Yet while producers and editors blame an American public allegedly disinterested in foreign coverage, recent polling suggests that this isn’t the case. In a 2006-2007 poll conducted by the BBC, two-thirds of Americans believed it is extremely or very important to have access to international news. Half of those polled rated American coverage of international stories as poor or fair, lamenting that stories are “sensationalist,” “superficial,” and “narrow.” Indeed, rather than a lack of interest from the American public, the real issue is that the news media haven’t made foreign news relevant enough to their American audience.

Editors have a responsibility to encourage interest in foreign news and to write stories that explain and contextualize global challenges. Rating wars and budgets do not exonerate journalists from the responsibility — and privilege — to inform. If the fourth estate is to maintain its relevance as a watchdog, it must fulfill its obligation to cover foreign news. Creative use of available resources, coupled with bold new thinking about how to apply them, could lead to better reporting that answers the call for both journalists and the public.

An emerging trend: NGO–media partnerships

If NGO-media partnerships are not yet happening formally and openly, they certainly are happening — to varying degrees — on the ground. Both field-based NGOs and journalists observe the media’s increasing reliance on NGOs, including humanitarian, human rights, and advocacy groups. As Steve Roberts, media ethics professor at George Washington University and former New York Times reporter, notes, “the spheres are overlapping more and more.”

Mainstream media and NGOs have long had a symbiotic relationship, with the media using NGO experts for news tips, quotes, and access. Now, with many foreign bureaus of major news outlets shuttered, and the simultaneous growth of more media savvy NGOs, the agencies are doing even more: researching and pitching stories, sharing contacts, developing content and providing logistics, guidance, analysis, opinion and, in some cases, funding. Put simply, without the help of these groups, many foreign news stories would not be told at all. It is a natural evolution of an already strong relationship. However, a slight, but fundamental, shift is underway in which NGOs are taking on more and more functions of news media in their capacity to gather and manage foreign news. While they certainly don’t have the mission or means to provide daily news coverage or replace that function for the media, they can and are helping to address the foreign news gap. This cross-pollination seems more logical in the field, as the number of people bearing witness to foreign stories shrinks.

CBS producer Max McClellan has traveled the globe with international correspondent Lara Logan. He thinks NGO-media partnerships are “hugely valuable relationships that can work well for both sides.” Said McClellan, NGOs provide “a way in that you can’t find elsewhere. You have fixers in some of these places, but they are more logistical. NGOs are editorial. Their people are smart on the issue and know the stories in terms of that ground truth.” McClellan describes a trip to Darfur he produced with the help of the International Rescue Committee: “We got a sense of what was happening through them and we were brought to the crux of the story. They knew their way around. We couldn’t have done it without them.” McClellan’s experience is not unique. Indeed, in many cases help from NGOs has become the determining factor in whether a story is assigned.

Former ABC News producer Dan Green agrees that in past years NGOs were always helpful, but today they are essential because stretched journalists simply don’t have time to do groundwork — finding experts, lining up interviews, researching characters — before parachuting into a foreign country. “Today the question is: will I do the story if I don’t have someone or some group on the ground who will help me get it done?”

Humanitarian staff feel the impact as well. Kate Conradt, a roving communications officer for the humanitarian group Save the Children, has seen firsthand that journalists are relying more heavily on aid organizations, especially in emergency situations. “We saw it in Bangladesh, where nobody is based…we had the boats, we had the trucks.” And they are filling in editorial as well as logistical gaps, she says. “In Burma…they couldn’t get visas, so we were their eyes and ears on the ground.” Margaret Aguirre, a former journalist who is now a global communications advisor for International Medical Corps, has had similar experiences. “Myanmar was an example where all the aid groups had their doors pounded on. We turned down a dozen requests by journalists to go in with us,” she said.

Refugees International, an advocacy organization, has helped journalists navigate refugee situations in Somalia, Burma, Sudan and other conflict areas. Press officer Vanessa Parra has orchestrated some of the trips, and says she has seen an increased willingness — and need — for reporters to access international stories on the shoulders of organizations like hers. “In the past there was an implied understanding that [news organizations] were having economic troubles, but [today] it has been made very clear to me that things are shifting,” she says. The group has been approached by journalists not only to help them with story ideas, but to help subsidize their trips, or simply author stories for them. She points out that while such stories do note the author’s affiliation, they are appearing more often throughout the publication, rather than just on opinion pages.

Freelance reporter Michael Kavanagh, whose work from Congo has been featured on NPR and BBC, has also witnessed the trend of NGOs filling in for journalists. For instance, when the elections in Eastern Congo were carried out relatively peacefully, his editors pulled him off of the story, instead instructing him to “just leave the [phone] numbers for key NGO [staff], and if we needed something we would get it from them.”

In addition to the long-standing practices of using relief groups to hitch rides to a crisis spot, to access refugee camps, or to provide details about an emergency, enterprising journalists are increasingly tapping into opportunities provided by foundations, fellowships and grants to support research travel. While not all news organizations support the practice, and many today won’t guarantee employment for returning reporters, those that do have benefited from no-strings-attached international coverage on another organization’s dime. Former Boston Globe reporter Charles Sennott, who spent a decade reporting from Jerusalem and London, returned home to find that the paper was investing more in local stories. Sennott looked for other funding sources to get him out of the newsroom and was awarded a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to travel to Afghanistan. The arrangement required him to report for the Foundation’s Carnegie Reporter, but also allowed him to file stories for The Boston Globe. “My editor [justified] it by looking the other way. He didn’t embrace it and didn’t reject it,” Sennott says. Indeed, in recent months foundations have seen spikes in applications from both staff reporters and freelancers, many of whom are causalities of the industry’s growing pains looking to keep their bylines current. In April the International Reporting Project — an organization that provides opportunities for journalists to travel overseas and report on critical issues not covered in mainstream media — saw an 80 percent increase in its applications.

Tom Peter, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor who has covered Iraq, Somalia, and the West Bank, is one journalist who has benefitted from such programs. Peter is dismayed by the number of international journalists forced to practice “telephone journalism” in lieu of getting out to the field. He has applied for reporting grants through the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, a nonprofit organization launched in 2006 that supports independent international journalism.

Pulitzer Center Director Jon Sawyer says in the beginning, news organizations were skeptical about using the work of the journalists he was funding, but that attitude has changed. To date, Pulitzer Center projects have been featured in most major U.S. print publications, including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times, as well as broadcast outlets such as NPR and PBS. “They realize they are not in a position to do everything and are looking for partnerships with credible groups,” Sawyer says. In this case, the Pulitzer name lends that credibility.

Christian Science Monitor’s Peter believes groups like the Pulitzer Center will be crucial to the survival of foreign reporting. “This is what is going to enable interesting, independent reporting…You just have to be careful who you become bedfellows with,” Peter says. “It is a matter of people opening their minds a little in the changed media climate…I think that really for journalism to be what it is meant to be, it is going to have to be looked at as a public service and groups like a Pulitzer Center will have to step up and fund worthwhile projects, and newspapers are going to have to partner with these groups.”

Sawyer has answered this call. “As we’ve grown, one of the roles we play is a bridge for NGOs, UN agencies, humanitarian groups out in the field looking for coverage but who can’t get resources committed from traditional media…[We can] work in effect as an agency for the journalist. We put them together with these NGOs or the UN that can help them get access to places that need covering, and then we help in marketing the piece and getting it placed. We think we answer the needs at both ends.”

Another new business, HUM: Human Unlimited Media, Worldwide (HUM), was founded by a longtime broadcast executive to create a brain trust of all those working on the frontlines. Joy Dibenedetto discovered that mainstream media, when it covered foreign news at all, was focusing on just 121 of the world’s 237 countries — basically only half of the world. The result is that 116 countries, what the company has termed the “Geographic Gap”™ in media, goes uncovered. The irony is that these countries are host to the world’s emerging markets and home to the fastest growing populations.

With the goal of becoming the world’s wire service, HUM uses low-cost technologies and a network of journalists, NGOs and academics on the ground in the developing world to provide stories from the Geographic Gap that most of the media have missed. It gathers these stories in a centralized hub which journalists, corporations or individuals can access for news feeds, raw video, or packaged and produced stories.

Former network news journalists Kira Kay and Jason Maloney, similarly frustrated by the lack of international coverage in TV news, founded a non-profit organization, the Bureau for International Reporting (BIR). The globetrotters are on a mission to make under-reported international news stories easily accessible to American news outlets, and they fund their travel with the help of foundations, grants, and individual donors. They trim costs by using new technology and streamlined production, and they can often write and produce several stories on one trip, which they then sell to multiple outlets. “It is almost like a dating service, making matches,” Kay says.

Both Kay and Maloney have backgrounds in international affairs and extensive relationships with humanitarian, development, and advocacy organizations, which they turn to for story ideas, expert analysis, and help in the field. Their collaboration with International Crisis Group in 2004, when the Darfur crisis erupted, resulted in some of the first network coverage of the conflict. The NGOs they work with often feature prominently in their stories, which have aired on PBS’s Newshour, HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports, and elsewhere.

The Bureau for International Reporting’s web of worldwide contacts allows them to sniff out a good story before it breaks, which paid off last year in Georgia. BIR’s producers were monitoring the increasingly frequent shootouts, mortar attacks and car bombings between Georgia and its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and realized the American public had precious little information about the possibility of full scale war. They flew to the border between Georgia and Russia and were the only American crew reporting from within the breakaway regions just as the war broke out on 8 August 2008. Their contacts with NGOs and other sources on the ground meant the producers were able to provide context about the war, rather than just coverage of the fighting. The story aired on Newshour, World Report and PBS Foreign Exchange.

Like Kay and Maloney, an increasing number of respected journalists are taking buy-outs or otherwise leaving the business, and becoming facilitators between news organizations and foundations or NGOs. “There are more opportunities for them in this gray area…and there are a lot of trusted journalists out there who are willing to do these stories,” says former ABC News producer Green. Indeed, it was a trusted journalist who brokered the deals between Crisis Group and Nightline, and ensured their success.

Journalists’ concerns

Despite their potential, NGO partnerships remain a tricky business for journalists and there is no single model that works for every news organization. Key among the many questions is whether partnering with an NGO compromises editorial integrity. Can journalists really maintain independence when there is a stakeholder involved? And will the arrangement undermine the audience’s trust in the media, no matter how altruistic the cause? Critics might argue these partnerships go too far in blurring editorial lines, and put the journalist at risk of losing objectivity, and potentially, credibility. But is it better to use the resources — staff, expertise or even funding — of a non-profit organization than to not do the story at all? Is the journalist serving the public better by ignoring the story altogether or by using available channels? As news organizations look for new ways to access original, international stories, they are “increasingly willing to bend some of these rules, as long as you don’t bend them too far,” media ethicist Roberts says.

The journalism community is also uneasy about the presumption that they have an obligation to include an NGO in the story if it donates time, staff resources or expertise. Kavanagh admits he has received some angry phone calls from NGOs who aren’t mentioned in his work. “The question is, are they part of the story anyway? But what happens when you talk to ten groups to report a story? You can’t mention them all,” he says. CBS’s McClellan says it seems like simple logic. “If someone is pulled in enough to take us to someplace like DRC or Darfur, it would just make sense. There is no quid pro quo…but on the other hand, anyone with such access and insight on an issue would inevitably also be a very smart person that we should strongly consider including in the story.” Green, the former ABC News producer, explains, “I’m going to put that person on, but I’m also going to check all the other viewpoints out there.”

In fact, most journalists agree that the more an organization pushes to be included in the story, the less likely it is that they will be. “It’s the idea of managing the message that makes journalists nuts…we don’t want to feel manipulated,” Green says.

Critics who suggest that partnerships cross editorial lines fail to acknowledge — or admit — that these professional barriers have long since begun to erode. Military embed programs have become commonplace and are considered acceptable as long as they are openly presented as such and supplemented with balancing material. Field-based freelancers increasingly have a foot in multiple worlds, producing content for an NGO or writing policy papers for a think tank, or maintaining an opinionated personal blog while simultaneously reporting for a news organization. New York Times Magazine foreign editor Scott Malcomson says that each case requires a judgment call. “I know it is happening and it is a serious issue and I don’t know what the answer is. I take each case as it comes.”

Consider as well that these new models are being played out against the backdrop of a debate about what journalism is and who is qualified to do it. Citizen journalists without any traditional journalism training have become major players in the public discourse. Networks routinely ask for eyewitness reports from viewers, whose pictures, video and commentary might be less than objective but still become part of the larger story. When CNN launched its website for citizen journalists, Susan Grant, Executive Vice President of CNN News Services, explained, “The community will decide what the news is. We are not going to discourage or encourage anything…iReport will be completely unvetted,” although CNN monitors for objectionable content. CNN, BBC and others also solicit eyewitness reports in breaking news situations that add color and detail to the story. However, even if images or opinions are advertised as unvetted material, they are quickly absorbed into the discourse and those distinctions can become muted for the audience. Writes Reuters Global Television Editor John Clarke about the surge of social media during the controversial Iranian election: “Verification is a major issue. Video or photos might not be what they purport to be, either because of sloppy information from the person posting it, or deliberate deceit either to create mischief or for political or other reasons.”

The issue of influence is even more opaque when it comes to money. NGOs are not in the business of subsidizing media, but often help offset costs for journalists just by virtue of where they work. Kavanagh explains, “In some ways they are always covering part of my costs, when [a humanitarian organization] flies me out and puts me up in their private home, there is no cash transaction but they are covering costs for me…It is a gray area, and it is in some ways getting murkier,” he says. It doesn’t serve either party to look like it is trying to curry influence, and no reputable NGO would want to try. NGO-media partnerships don’t have to include cost-sharing. However, producing international stories is an expensive venture, and sometimes finding a creative funding arrangement is the only way to do it.

If the media have adapted to new players, new technologies, and new market demands, why can’t the same flexibility be applied to new partnerships with groups — even those with a stated viewpoint — that can help serve the audience? Just tell the audience. A heightened awareness about the potential of impropriety might even force some journalists to become more forthcoming about practices that are increasingly becoming accepted by the industry. And that frankness with the audience encourages honest debate that could then continue on discussion boards and blog sites.

Trust, transparency, and credibility are critical to producing successful relationships. With these key elements, answers to the questions about whether and how to best serve the audience should be obvious. International Crisis Group’s own experience shows that Ted Koppel is no less respected for producing important stories with Crisis Group’s help, and the audience probably appreciated his forthcoming explanations about how the stories came about. And when 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley traveled with Crisis Group staff to Darfur in search of a young boy named Jacob, viewers were given a compelling story that helped put a personal, human face on the ongoing crisis. Crisis Group conceptualized the story, and with its contacts on the ground located the boy in a refugee camp, translated his school diaries and helped navigate dangerous rebel-held terrain. Far from raising issues of trust or credibility, the show was so popular with audiences that it re-aired three times, and it won the newscast an Emmy. The experience stands as another example of managing collaboration to everyone’s benefit — the media, the NGO, and especially the public.

NGO concerns

While the journalism profession remains concerned with maintaining editorial integrity, operational NGOs in any prospective media partnership are concerned about matters ranging from personnel security to preserving humanitarian access. Long after any collaboration produces a story, NGOs must continue to work on the ground. If there is a perception that a group is helping one side of the conflict or the other, the lives of staffers, especially nationals, can be endangered, along with their beneficiaries. Likewise, the wrong message in a story can have dire consequences for the good-will NGOs work to build — and rely on — in a community and among the local authorities.

Save the Children’s Conradt says she is willing to help journalists, but only to a point. “We will tell them exactly what we have and what our folks can talk about. We aren’t going to get political. We aren’t going to do anything that endangers our staff or the kids in our programs, and they know that upfront and if that works, they are welcome to come along.”

Linda Poteat, a senior program manager at InterAction, spent five years working in central Africa. She says field workers tread a fine line between generating outside interest in a humanitarian situation and endangering their ability to work. “We feel like we are supposed to be a voice for the voiceless, but how do you do that in a way that doesn’t come back to bite you? We are so close to the conflict, we are institutionally neutral but on a personal level we know who is to blame. It is sometimes hard to self-censor when you are in the thick of things.” But that’s what they often end up doing. Compromising neutrality can also mean compromising access to vulnerable populations, or risking the ability to work at all. Governments in many countries are often looking for reasons to shut down or silence NGOs, and affiliation with the wrong news report can give those governments the excuse they need. One only needs to look to the high profile cases in Sudan to see the dangers. President Omar al-Bashir started revoking the licenses of operational aid agencies for allegedly talking to investigators just moments after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him. And in September 2009, UNICEF spokesperson James Elder was expelled from Sri Lanka after telling the media about the “unimaginable hell” suffered by children caught in the final stages of the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government forces. In another instance, a media NGO was forced out of its office in Baku, Azerbaijan, in an “act of political persecution aimed to increase pressure on civil society representatives and keep them in fear,” said officials with the organization.

There’s another kind of danger for NGOs that allow journalists into close quarters. What if they don’t like what they see within the operation? “There is a certain ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ arc to it,” the New York Times’ Malcomson says. Refugees International’s Parra says that it is frustrating when the journalists they help produce coverage that isn’t flattering, or that oversimplifies sophisticated policy points. However, she says while it would be nice to get positive publicity for the organization, it’s enough to just get an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground. It works both ways, says Conradt. “It is not just us getting what we want. And we don’t control the story at all. They know we can be honest brokers, and it’s up to the news organization to know who they are playing with.”

Indeed, the player does matter to many journalists, who say they will partner with an aid organization, but draw the line at an advocacy group. However, while many of these groups carry out different functions — some providing food and shelter, some prescribing policy, some documenting human rights — in many cases their end goal is the same: saving lives. And inside the humanitarian business, these groups consult with one another. Many operational NGOs have memorandums of understanding with advocacy organizations, who can articulate their messages without assuming the same risks.

When staff and beneficiary lives are at stake, it is clear that media partnerships won’t always work. But when they do, the advantage for NGOs can be significant. For aid organizations such as Save the Children or International Medical Corps, media visibility can translate to fundraising dollars, which in turn translates to more services for the vulnerable. For advocacy organizations such as International Crisis Group, Refugees International or Human Rights Watch, attention to an issue can affect policy, which in turn can impact lives.

A future for international news?

The Murrow days of foreign news reporting are long gone, but there is still a need and responsibility — and a hunger — for important international stories in American society. The only remaining question is how to produce those stories in the current media climate.

The picture emerging is one of journalists who are trying to find new ways to tell important international stories and NGOs that are adapting to meet that need. An editorial red line the media would have considered completely taboo to cross just a few years ago might be more palatable today as the financial pressures on news organizations continue to mount. Similarly, an NGO offering time, staff or funding to help a news organization might have once seemed far outside of its mission, but today it is an important part of maintaining a voice in a competitive field and ensuring that stories that affect so many lives still reach U.S. audiences. The tide is moving in this direction regardless: NGOs are becoming their own news entities, producing content in-house and reaching around mainstream media to distribute their brand and messages directly to audiences; foundations are bridging the gap; new businesses are emerging to feed the supply.

With new space opening for this kind of collaboration, NGO-media partnerships are offering a new future to international news. Those bearing witness on the frontlines of conflict zones — whether issuing humanitarian aid, documenting human rights abuses or advising policymakers — have a significant role to play in relating stories to American audiences. Although many organizations lack official policies, and while it might not be the perfect match for everyone, the fact is, NGO-media partnerships are happening. And they have the potential to lead to stronger foreign news reporting and better serve audiences interested in an increasingly interconnected world.

Kimberly Abbott is North America Communications Director for the International Crisis Group. In this role, she is responsible for developing and leading the U.S. media strategy to advance Crisis Group’s policy prescriptions and to raise awareness of conflict situations in the U.S. media. She has previously worked as communications and media manager for InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international development and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations, and, for more than ten years, as a reporter and producer for local, national and international television and radio.

Photo of Ted Koppel by Tim Brauhn used under a Creative Commons license.

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