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May 12 2010

14:00

NGOs and the News: Civil society’s place in the new news ecosystem

If you’ve followed our NGOs and the News collaboration with Penn’s Annenberg School, you may remember Laura’s coverage of the Milton Wolf Seminar in Austria. It was a conference to discuss the same questions raised in the series: What role should non-governmental organizations play in the new news ecosystem? As budgets for international reporting disappear, can NGOs fill the gap? Does thinking of themselves as media outlets change the way NGOs do the rest of their work? How should readers treat information coming from an organization that is also a player in the area it’s reporting from?

In the buildup to the conference, organizers held a competition to find the best student essays on NGO media and diplomatic strategies. There were seven winners; I’ve posted excerpts of the essays of five of them below. The winners were Columbia’s Kate Cronin-Furman, Tufts’ Galen Tan, and:

Tori Horton, USC: On using new media as an agent for change within organizations
Felicity Duncan, Penn: NGO journalism from a global perspective
Burcu Baykurt, University of London: Risks and rewards of NGO/media collaboration
Maria Egupova, Central European U.: NGOs and media in the South Ossetia conflict
Silvia Lindtner, UC Irvine: NGOs in the Chinese context

More information about the contest and all seven winners can be found in this document, which also serves as a nice summary of the conference’s discussions.

Tori Horton: Developing new media strategies and exploring potential consequences for governments, NGOs, and journalism in a blurred, flat and transparent global society

In 2005 I helped launch the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication explorations into the virtual world of Second Life. At that time virtual worlds as a medium for communication were just beginning and organizations were working to understand how best to utilize a virtual world. Governments, NGOs, foundations, universities, journalists, hospitals, corporations, and advocacy groups all converged; struggling to adapt to the Second Life culture, defend why engagement in virtual spaces was valuable to their mission, educate skeptics, acclimatize to a flat hierarchical structure void of traditional status signals, overcome fears of trust, re-create their brand for this new medium and ultimately define and work to achieve success.

To name a few organizations: Sweden launched an official Second Life embassy, The American Cancer Society began hosting virtual relays for life — complete with fundraising — CNN and Reuters opened news offices, NPR ran Second Life “Science Fridays”, Harvard taught classes, NASA opened a lab, the MacArthur Foundation explored education and learning, and IBM used it for internal communication and operations. Many of these projects were tremendously successful despite a long list of challenges. A few have determined that their project was more work to maintain than the effort was worth and have retreated; others continue and represent successful models of engagement. It is fair to say that as technology advanced, organizations that desired to leverage new technology had to be flexible in their media strategies and adapt.

NGOs are currently facing parallel challenges to those described above when dealing with disruptive media that forces them to innovate and explore media and Web 2.0 engagement beyond their traditional role. Becoming an intermediary for news organizations is not historically how these groups have operated, yet there are incentives to participation that have lured these organizations to experiment with news production among other new media awareness and engagement strategies. Based on my experience in virtual worlds, I believe that when NGOs and other organizations take on new media strategies industry lines blur, organizational structure shifts and transparency increases. As changes occur it is probable to expect a reorganization among global corporations and countries as they respond to paradigm shifts.

The first change is a massive blurring among industries when organizations compete for attention in a saturated media market. In Second Life, NGOs and other organizations worked to compete for attention, not just within their particular industry but at large in the virtual world. While this may be disheartening for those who preferred organizations that focus on the job at hand, it is exciting to see how new technology and corporate practices are more quickly achieving Keck and Sikkink’s “boomerang effect” by using new media to leverage internal and external pressure points producing change. In order for a group like the American Cancer Society to run a successful virtual relay for life in the world of Second Life they needed to create virtual representations of themselves and ignite the interest of the community. They were then able to use the event to heighten awareness of the relay in both the real and virtual world through a strategic press campaign, including an article in The New York Times.

The second shift occurs as organizations adapt to disrupting technologies and encounter challenges to traditional hierarchical organization models. This shift most often occurs when individuals on the “front-lines” tasked with communicating on behalf of their organization are no longer given time to clear messages before releasing them. It forces these individuals to become real-time spokespersons for the organization. In the virtual world they actually become the face of their organization, a spot traditionally reserved for the CEO.

The final change that is taking place due to new media strategies is a higher demand among end users for transparency as the new model to differentiate among news agencies, NGOs, governments and other organizations moving forward. For many journalists, transparency is the new objectivity. David Weinberger sums up the demand this way: “What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position.” All organizations are forced to either show more transparency in their choices or face questions when their motives are further exposed and challenged.

As a student of public diplomacy with an interest in new technology I have watched governments around the world struggle to adapt to new media in a similar process as NGOs and journalists. While they have not become information intermediaries for news, governments continue to push their own agendas and content. Governments can now be found in virtual worlds, on Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. They can be found twittering and blogging. They have created entire offices such as the U.S. Bureau International Information Programs’ Office of Innovative Engagement, designed specifically for media outreach to foreign publics through engagement in networked mediums. Spaces like Second Life are at the convergence of these practices as traditional organizations adapt to new technology and create networks.

NGOs, news media, and governments are adapting to new technology. NGO media strategies affect journalistic and diplomatic practices, but they are also indicative of changes across industries from a broader perspective. Strict industry lines are blurring, organizational structure is shifting, and transparency is increasing. The consequences will be varied, but connected and engaged citizens from around the world will tap into knowledge networks in ways that have not been possible until now. Consciously embracing NGOs (as well as other trusted organizations) as information intermediaries does not necessarily represent a positive or negative change for news, but rather a shift in information networks for society.

Tori Horton earned a master’s degree in public diplomacy from the University of Southern California. She has worked in the field of public diplomacy for the past five years. Her areas of interest include new technology, cultural exchange, communication, civil society, and humanitarian aid.

Felicity Duncan: NGOs, journalism and diplomacy: Conceptual murkiness clouds enquiry

The role that contemporary non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are playing in the fields of news and journalism, and diplomacy, has generally been understood in fairly narrow terms, leading to a number of conceptual problems that undermine discussions on the topic. First and most important among these problems is the prevailing understanding of journalistic practice and news organizations. The often-unstated assumption here is that when we talk about “journalistic practices” and “news organizations,” what we are talking about is a particular model of journalism, Anglo-American and liberal in orientation and ideology, which is primarily engaged in the collection and neutral, unbiased presentation of objectively verified facts with the intention only of informing and educating audiences.

If we assume this model to be normatively and actually dominant, then concerns about NGOs polluting and undermining journalistic independence and purity naturally emerge. However, should we be so quick to assume that this is the most important or accurate model for journalism and news media, and, as a corollary, that this is how practicing journalists themselves understand the news/NGO nexus?

In fact, journalism as it is practiced in various regions of the world is a more complex and variable phenomenon than the Anglo-American or liberal model suggests (Hallin & Mancini, 2004).

Some journalism traditions focus on a more narrative, literary form of reportage with more explicitly political objectives and a diminished focus on neutrality and balance as guiding principles (Hallin & Mancini, 2004). In other, often poorer and thus marginalized regions, journalism is not yet a well-developed, autonomous field, but rather it is the provenance of amateurs and correspondents who play multiple social roles outside of the news media and have less concern with objectivity (Rugh, 2004). Yet other nations have news media that are generally controlled or managed by governments with more interest in stability than in factual reporting, and in such locations a totally different model of journalistic praxis applies. What’s more, in today’s information technology context, worldwide audiences have access to the production of all these forms of journalistic practices, so it makes little sense to focus exclusively on traditionally conceived Western media. Instead, perhaps, we need to think in terms of more diverse and variable mediascapes (Appadurai, 1996). In the context of these different and overlapping mediascapes, then, the emerging role of NGOs in the news field may well be seen in a different light, perhaps not as a confrontation with or source of ethical awkwardness for journalists, but rather as an enrichment of the pool of information, debate and opinion available.

Journalists, particularly those outside the liberal paradigm, may themselves understand the situation in ways that are very different from those of Western journalists. Furthermore, in certain societies, NGOs may be perceived by audiences to be a preferred alternative to media that are state-controlled or heavily censored (Gomez, 2005), rather than as a threat to the purity or independence of the media. Finally, it is worth noting that even within those nations whose media are seen to exemplify the dominant Anglo-American journalism paradigm, such as the United States, news and journalism is changing with the advent of new, low-cost technologies that enable the production of “news” by ordinary citizens. Although this has often been greeted with suspicion and resistance by established journalists and news media, it is a process that shows no sign of abating, and is changing audience conceptions of what constitutes news and who is a credible source thereof. We should, in other words, develop a more sensitive understanding of what constitutes journalism in a given context, and for a particular audience, rather than assuming that a single model applies and investigating the role of NGOs in the light of that model. Seen from a different angle, the news/NGO nexus may present totally different problematics.

Another crucial point is the implicit assumption that, while NGOs bring a particular agenda to the creation of news, journalists and existing news media are somehow agenda-free. Only if this holds true does it make sense for us to be concerned about the seepage of NGO agendas into the supposedly pristine space of news. But of course, this is by no means the case. All news media are institutions with particular histories, structures and imperatives that guide their agendas just as surely as any other set of institutions. American media are in many cases part of global corporations with the profit motive as one core driver behind their models of news-making; some media are backed by political parties with particular agendas, some by states with agendas of their own. There is no unsullied field of news-making that must be defended against NGO invasion. Instead, we should consider the ways in which the growing involvement of NGOs in the creation of news alters or influences media agendas. Perhaps this will prove to be a change for the better, but to explore this question we must start with the assumption that news creation is already an ideological enterprise.

NGOs’ new media strategies are part of a broader evolution in news mediascapes, and a consequence of the growing importance of media in diplomacy efforts for actors ranging from states to mining companies — basically for all groups with a stake in global policy and negotiation. We should not fall into the trap of assuming that there is a clean, traditional news space into which NGOs are moving, or that journalists view NGO involvement with hostility. Furthermore, we should be careful about Western-centrism in a world in which Western dominance is under threat from many sides, and non-Western powers wield increasing diplomatic clout. If we ask, for example, what NGO information-provision does to news media in China, I suspect that our perspective on the debate will change dramatically. Given the degree to which contemporary diplomacy is a multi-polar, unstable and heavily mediated process, any exploration of the role of NGOs in this process must be sensitive to nuances, or risk irrelevance.

Felicity Duncan is a PhD candidate in communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. She was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she attended university, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communication. She has worked as a journalist and editor and holds a master’s degree in journalism (as a Fulbright scholar) from the University of Missouri.

Burcu Baykurt: NGOs and the media in global civil society

According to contemporary democratic theory, NGOs represent the democratic values of civil society, while the media is assumed to have a watchdog role. Therefore, the increase in NGO-generated international news content and its distribution to journalists is important not only for the future of journalism, but also because of its potential political outcomes. News agencies have long been criticized for offering homogenous content as well as providing stories that fail to challenge the ideological dominance of the U.S. and the U.K. (Hachten and Scotton, 2002). The new form of interdependence between the NGOs and the media could lead to the production of international stories that would not be told at all if there was no cooperation between them. So could this collaboration lead to the enhancement of the political capacity of global civil society? I would argue that although this collaboration may be positive, we need to address some issues in order to develop a better model through which the NGOs and the media could work more effectively.

First, leaving the provision of international news to the NGOs (and disregarding the journalists) does not comply with the ideal democratic public sphere, which assumes a watchdog role for the media in addition to the maintenance of the plurality of voices. As Natalie Fenton argues earlier in this series, NGOs that pursue certain goals and values cannot ensure impartiality. Although their perspectives and stories should be reflected in the media, no matter how subjectively they are presented, they will remain the views of a certain group. As Ethan Zuckerman points out, NGOs could either be manipulating facts in line with their ideological standpoint or interpret the events differently in order to advocate certain goals. Therefore, stories reported by NGOs need to be critically reviewed. Moreover, we still need professional journalists who can disseminate the voices of different groups, as well as address ideological or political perspectives through their critical point of view. In other words, we should always ensure that the collaboration between the NGOs and the journalists fulfils the democratic standards of objectivity and diversity.

A second risk that should be taken into account is related to the market logic of the media. This could have a transformative effect in the world of some NGOs in the choice of content as well as in the presentation of the news. Natalie Fenton describes this as following a certain pattern of ‘news cloning.’ The NGOs have already learnt how to attract media publicity by using celebrity spokesmen, creating sensational content or relying on dramatic images. While trying to disseminate their values or news, they rely on existing marketing strategies to attract the mass media as well as the audience. One striking example is a campaign by ActionAid, one of the UK’s leading charities, in which a model dressed like Marilyn Monroe announces the launch of the Dying for Diamonds project (Gaber and Willson, 2005).

By assimilating mainstream publicity and media strategies, NGOs may reinforce stories tailored according to the needs of media corporations instead of channeling the untold stories of the world to the global citizens. Media reliance on a few major NGOs presents a further risk. If the audience only hears the voices of NGOs that are trained according to the mainstream news logic, have established close relations with the major news organizations and provide the expected content and presentation of stories, NGO-media cooperation could threaten the political enhancement of global civil society with respect to plurality and the right to information.

Risks aside, NGO-media cooperation can provide an opportunity for the inclusion of citizens in the global public sphere. NGOs — as the civil voices of individuals related to certain humanitarian or political goals and values — and the media — as the watchdog of the power centers in society — could cooperate to activate the global audience or citizens to challenge the power structures. Their relationship should not be passive — in which an NGO representative provides the content and the media utilize it. Rather it should be active. Citizens should be empowered to frame their stories and broadcast their critical comments to the world. The Hub and Ushahidi are two examples of such NGO-media cooperation that have not only provided an innovative and extensive dissemination of news but also enabled citizens to participate to the public sphere. These initiatives have become global now thanks to the internet.

All in all, within the perspective of constructing a global civil society in a world that is rapidly becoming interdependent, strong collaboration between NGOs and the media has the potential to enhance politics and society. Although there are certain risks that could obstruct this potential as well as further opportunities that need to be explored, I believe that this evolving cooperation has implications not only for journalism studies but also for the civic engagement of citizens globally.

Burcu Baykurt holds a B.A. in political science from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Following her three years of work experience in marketing for a multinational company, she currently studies in Goldsmiths, University of London. As a Fulbright fellow she will continue her studies in the United States in 2010-2012. Her research interests are mainly the impact of the new media on the future of journalism and democratic experiences of countries as well as political and economic forces that influence the new media landscape.

Maria Egupova: NGO-media cooperation in Russia

As other contributors to the NGOs and the News series have argued, NGOs now play an ever-more-important role in foreign news coverage. But can NGOs really cover all regions in the world? In some countries, NGO-media collaboration works effectively. While in others it does not. In Russia, relations between the domestic media and NGOs do not work properly and are not yet fully developed. This lack of cooperation is also evident on the international stage between Russian NGOs and foreign media. As a result, Russian NGOs are not reaching international audiences and their efforts are insignificant; and international NGOs have increased awareness about events in Tibet, but do not cover the news about human rights abuses in Russia.

The 2008 South Ossetia war between Russia and Georgia provides one of the best examples of the ineffective work of Russian NGOs and the failure of NGO-media relations. While there were several NGO representatives in the war zone they asserted very little influence over the situation. They did not attract much international attention or raise awareness about the conflict. While they managed to stop the destruction and plunder of Georgian villages, they had little broader impact. In addition, they did not change the image of the war created by Russian media. For example, Alik Mnatsakanyan of DEMOS Centre, a Moscow-based research center for NGOs, argues that only one Russian battalion was located on the territory of South Ossetia on the eve of the conflict and these troops were a part of a peacekeeping force. Therefore he assumes that this conflict was not planned beforehand as Western media claim. Yet this information did not reach global audiences.

Domestic NGOs in Russia are making a relatively small impact on changing the political agenda or building a civil society because of the problems they experience. While representatives of large international NGOs such as Greenpeace or Médecins Sans Frontières can afford to hire a PR specialist, domestic NGOs have limited funding and abilities to reach a broader audience, nor do they have well developed web pages and competent PR specialists. This is worsened by the current economic crisis; an increase in charitable activities over the past two years (in 2008, Russian companies devoted about 14 million rubles (approximately US$467,000) to NGOs working in the social sector) came to a halt at the beginning of 2009. According to the Russian Ministry of Justice, there are 30 branches and 251 representative offices of foreign NGOs registered in Russia as of November 2009, the majority of which deal with adoption. In such a large and diverse country like Russia there are too many social and political layers and the limited number of NGOs presented in Russia cannot cover all of them. The majority of NGOs are located in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, and cannot respond quickly enough to events happening in different regions. For example, there were huge protests in Vladivostok, the largest port on the Russian Far East and a hub for importing used cars from Japan, on December 12 and December 21, 2008. People went to the streets of the city in order to express their disagreement with the policy of higher tariffs on imported used cars and on housing and public utilities. During the first protest people blocked the main roads of the city and access to the airport. On December 21, the Kremlin sent riot police in; people were reeling around the Christmas tree on the central square when riot police started dragging them into vans, including a few journalists from Moscow and Japan.

These events were completely ignored by the government-controlled national media. To fill the gap, the role of citizen journalists increased; they started uploading videos on YouTube and other sources. In my view, the citizen journalists were not trying to change international coverage, but news within the country. In the meantime their reports unintentionally contributed to the coverage of this story by Western media. For example the British Times Online covered this story without any reference on the source and without the name of the author; the New York Times cited the “Amateur video posted online by people who said they were at Sunday’s demonstration in Vladivostok”; BBC World included voices of some witnesses, protesters, “the independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy” and “the BBC’s Richard Galpin in Moscow.”

Yet I did not find any NGO voices presented in this story. This again proves the failure of NGO-media cooperation in Russia; even foreign attention to this event did not change the situation and did not make the Russian government bear responsibility for its actions, and the international community reacted in a modest manner.

There are some exceptions. For example, the Memorial Human Rights Center together with Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper) published several articles about the history of Gulags, the penal labor camps during the Soviet era, which were widely debated in the society. However, centralization, strong governmental control over NGOs, and threat of closures makes such involvement difficult.

NGO-media cooperation in Russia should strengthen civil society and increase the awareness about the events happening in the country; it should also contribute to diplomatic relations. Currently, however, this cooperation does not work properly and civil society is unable to affect the diplomacy of government and other international actors.

Outside of Russia, numerous international NGOs have increased awareness of global events — for instance in Somalia, Burma, Sudan — and media and governments take them seriously. Russian NGOs cannot do the same job; their presence does not really change the journalistic and diplomatic practices of the country. During the conflict with Georgia, Russian NGOs did not contribute to shaping the news, and the international community supported the Georgian point of view. The same situation occurred in Vladivostok; NGOs did not provide assistance and did not cooperate with the media, and this story was largely ignored by the Russian media. I believe that Russian NGOs are on their way to improving their position in society and that they will follow the Western trend and increase their watchdog function so the Russian government will start taking them into consideration.

Maria Egupova is an MA student in Political Science at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. Her main research interests are in the media communication field, print media analysis, media-Internet relations, and the challenges new Internet media present to traditional media. She graduated from the Far Eastern National University in 2008 in Vladivostok with an honors diploma specializing in regional studies of the U.S., Canada, and Latin America.

Silvia Lindtner: Media consumption and production in a networked society: Mixed media and NGOs in China

Other essays in the NGOs and the News series have explored the question of collaboration between mainstream media and NGOs. I would like to take this debate a step further and explore how NGOs, as well as other activist collectives, act across a range of media: What are the kinds of relations collectives like the NGO establish across and with diverse media sites? What are the kinds of publics that emerge at the intersection of activism and new media? How are these publics bridging across different localities and local politics? And once we speak of networked media sites and publics, how do local politics and issues at stake shape global relations and vice versa?

NGO activity in China presents an interesting case study for these questions, as China continues to receive heightened attention in broader debates of the impact of new media and technologies on social and economic change. While the number of Chinese internet users continues to increase, internet policies and legislation, ranging from mass closings of public media and internet access to the installation of control mechanisms on computer terminals, have impacted media practice and information sharing. Such changes have led to numerous debates over the impact of free press and the internet in China and the nation’s image on a global stage. New media, in particular, are considered by the Chinese government as a site of potential social unrest and of the formation of larger collectives whose opinions diverge from the one advertised through the tightly controlled mainstream media.

Setting up an NGO in China is a difficult and regulated process that often requires close relations to the government or the maintenance of informal networks. In light of China’s context of media and internet control, the question of the potentially beneficial relationship between the media and NGO worlds takes on a new meaning. While Chinese NGOs are technically not government agencies, the Chinese government still has an influence over them through various establishment and oversight mechanisms inherent in the national legislation.

In an earlier essay in this series, Kimberly Abbott describes how a tight collaboration between ABC’s Nightline and an international NGO called Crisis Group constituted a win-win situation for both. An alliance of such sorts might have quite different consequences in a climate of tight control and political and economic change as is the case in China. Some activist collectives and NGOs, for example, have chosen alternate routes, building informal networks across multiple media publics and engaging on a local and international level. At times, success is dependent on the anonymity available through social media sites. Just as important, however, are the ways in which diverse stakeholders imagine themselves as participants in a broader collective of media consumers and producers. While not necessarily directly interacting, participants in these webs of networked connections think of themselves as linked through an ideal, a shared philosophy or passion that spans beyond a single site or cultural context.

In China, the relationship between media, new media and NGOs and other activist collectives is an ambivalent one, and one that is clearly not limited to a single media site. For example, as much as social activists and NGOs exploit anonymity to circumvent restriction, so do large anonymous collectives of patriotic cyber-hackers that undertake attacks on international cyber-infrastructures.

This suggests an alternate route towards exploring the many possible relationships between media and NGOs. Media practices are diverse forms of participation that include both creation and consumption, and a mix of old and new technologies. New media systems should not be idealized as the guarantees for counter-action and resistance, nor seen as determining social practice. Rather what is required is a careful engagement with the local yet global dimensions of these new forms of media productions and usages as they play an increasingly central role at the intersection of conflicting political values, international relations and formations of new collaborations.

Silvia Lindtner is a PhD candidate in the department of informatics at the University of California Irvine. Her research interests include media studies and China studies, anthropology, science and technology studies and social informatics. Her main research focuses on the role of digital media in relation to urban development, political discourse and state legislation in China.

March 30 2010

16:00

Milton Wolf Seminar: Parting thoughts on NGOs as newsmakers, fragmentation in the media field, and the politics of platforms

Times are changing rapidly for the fixtures of international diplomacy: NGOs, media outlets, and governments. As news organizations shrink and cut back on foreign reporting resources, more NGOs are finding themselves in the unusual position of producing news themselves to get their messages out. As the way we consume news fragments onto new platforms, NGOs and governments struggle to reach a mass audience. I spent time thinking about these challenges while attending the Milton Wolf Seminar in Vienna earlier this month, and since. Here are three thoughts I took away from the trip.

NGOs as newsmakers

In terms of the future of news, the biggest takeaway from the seminar for me is what felt like an inevitable shift in who will produce our international news. American television news has largely been reduced to parachute-in coverage of disasters. Newspaper foreign bureaus are mostly gone. Faced with the alternative (of nothing), NGOs with experts on the ground have an attractive potential to produce valuable news. And it’s already happening: Panelists pointed to Human Rights Watch’s work during the 2008 Georgia-Russian conflict as an example. Work by many NGOs in Haiti reached a broad audience through organization blogs and Twitter feeds.

That’s not to say there aren’t huge challenges. Thomas Seifert, a foreign correspondent for the Austrian daily Die Presse said he felt duped by an NGO with an agenda early in his career. A journalist arriving in a foreign country with little background knowledge of the political landscape could easily miss underlying motivations, Seifert said. NGOs need to be credible, and journalists need to be able to tell the difference between organizations.

Kimberly Abbott, a communications director at International Crisis Group, offered more hopeful examples of partnerships between NGOs and news organizations. Abbott described a story from 2006, in which ICG provided 60 Minutes with all of the component parts necessary to construct a heart-wrenching story about a young boy who fled his village to escape the violence in Darfur. The story went on to win an Emmy. Abbott pointed to another story, which she’s written about for the Lab, in which Ted Koppel explained how Nightline worked with ICG to produce a story about the Rwandan Genocide.

A fragmented field

Simon Cottle, a professor of media and communications at the Cardiff School — who has written for the Lab about how NGOs tailor their message to get media pickup — described the fragmented media field as one of the new challenges NGOs face. New media has become important, but it has joined a larger, still ongoing system of news; television and print media are still important. With all of these forms of media, it becomes important for NGOs to have a multi-faceted strategy of reaching an audience. For news outlets, it’s a reminder that consumers are getting their information across platforms, from many outlets and in an interactive way.

Transparency International’s Georg Neumann described taking on this change in the media landscape as an attempt at starting conversation. Joining the the entangled web of media (new and old) means no longer just using the top-down approach of handing off a report to a few key reporters. NGOs have to join in with the audience. He describes here how one of their efforts proved more successful using both new-media and traditional-media promotional strategies.

The politics of platforms

One idea that struck me during the seminar was brought up by by Silvia Lindtner, a graduate student at UC Irvine with a background in design. She described the need to be mindful of the politics and values embedded in the new tools and new platforms we use to consume news. Twitter and Facebook have their own values built into the platforms that seem to fit in with American democratic values — but what could they mean for audiences abroad? What values will come along with the next big media tool?

It’s an issue already under consideration by the State Department, Victoria Horton, a recent USC Annenberg School graduate noted. Horton, who studied virtual worlds while completing her master’s, said that in her research of Second Life, she learned that the State Department was actively engaging with the creators and backers of virtual worlds. When we’re talking about media consumption, it’s worth considering what messages the tools send themselves, rather than just the content.

March 22 2010

16:00

Milton Wolf Seminar: Transparency International explains how it became a conversation starter

VIENNA — Every year, the NGO Transparency International releases its Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures how citizens in 180 countries view their public institutions.

Traditionally, Transparency International has used a filter to get their message out: handing the results and data to journalists, who produce stories that spread their anti-corruption message to the public. In recent years, the organization has started rethinking this strategy. Emerging online tools have allowed the organization to reach an audience in more dynamic ways, (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) Georg Neumann, who works for the organization’s communications office, says the new environment creates dialogue and conversation in a way the old process didn’t

“While not only talking to the journalists, we also talk directly to the citizens,” he told me after a break out session Wednesday at the Milton Wolf Seminar. “All of these three interact much more strongly than ‘here’s our NGO, here’s the news organization and somewhere there were the citizens.’ Now, what we can do is actually have a conversation with all three.”

Transparency International hasn’t crossed the self-image line into considering itself a journalistic institution. But as NGOs increasingly deliver news and information directly to their audiences, those lines are getting blurrier. My brief chat with Neumann is above, and there’s a transcript below.

Georg Neumann: Hi, my name is Georg Neumann — I work for Transparency International in the communication department.

I want to talk to you a little bit about how social media has changed a little bit the way we work with journalists, but also more in general, how we fight corruption and we try to advocate for transparency and anti-corruption.

Maybe the best thing to do this is with an example. Let’s take the Corruption Perceptions Index, our famous ranking of about 180 countries around the world, measuring the perceived public-sector corruption. With this tool, what we did last year, in 2009, we have done something that we call the virtual launch, where we try to increase basically — make increased use of social media tools, using Twitter, using a blog to gather sort of the effects of corruption on human lives, using Facebook to cater a community of people that are already interested in corruption, and try to stimulate posts and comments — meaning a conversation about the issue of corruption, which is much deeper than simply using a table to show that.

So what it had shown is that while not only talking to the journalists, we also talked directly to the citizens. And these form basically kind of a triangle. So you have the organization here, you have the journalists here, the media organizations, and you have the citizens here. And all of these three interact much more strongly than they did before, where it was only our NGO and here’s the news organization. So now what we can do is actually have conversation about all of the three.

So one example was the Huffington Post taking our index and creating a slideshow with one slide per country, and about 300 comments within the first couple of days, actually discussing corruption in the U.S. — which really surprised us, but which was really effective in getting the message out in much deeper form than it did before. So the power of social media is not only to distribute it to a different audience, but also you get much richer discussions and comment on the issue that we advocate for.

Laura McGann: Are you spending time and resources at your organization to reach audiences directly? Are you growing that part of your organization or are you thinking more about it? Do you think that’s sort of changed how you reach an audeinc direcelty?

Neumann: I think this is one of our challenges, now that we need to find way to interact more with the citizens themselves. So we’ve created a Facebook community — we have to dedicate time to actually discuss issues, create an online discussion, a chat, these kinds of things.

What we do as a network or a team at Transparency International — we’re represented in 100 countries around the world. And every country works with their national audiences. So we have a direct way there of our organization talking to, making events for them, using social media to invite to these events, to create protests such as in Indonesia last year, where we had 2.5 million people being organized through Facebook to protest against the government’s sacking of anti-corruption commissioners.

So this is something that we do and we realize we need to invest much more time in doing so. I think the other part of this is that also we see is a need for citizens to actually talk and tell their stories. And what we’re looking into right now is how do we capture these stories. One way is allowing them to post their stories on a blog or Facebook, recording them with a Flip camera, and tell these stories. But there are many other ways to do that and we have to really find very effective tools, and that’s something we’re doing now.

March 18 2010

14:21

Milton Wolf Seminar: NGOs as newsmakers, journalists and aid workers as Facebook friends

VIENNA — When a massive earthquake rocked Haiti on January 11, there was only one foreign correspondent — a writer for the Associated Press — in the country to cover the disaster. In the following days, media from around the world parachuted in, relying heavily on NGOs for sources and context.

Two weeks later, most media had left. But there was still an audience around the globe, particularly in the United States, hearing stories and getting information because a handful of NGO workers, many of them former journalists, were still tweeting and blogging about what was happening on the ground.

This anecdote, recounted by Kimberly Abbott of the International Crisis Group, was the first we heard today at the Milton Wolf Seminar on the changing role of NGOs and media. The opening panel, “NGOs as Newsmakers in a Social Media Networking Environment,” laid out great questions to start people thinking about how the Internet, social media tools, and the mainstream media’s shrinking capacity are reshaping relationships between NGOs and journalists. There are pitfalls the panelists agreed, but the potential is exciting.

Abbott says that those tweeting and blogging NGO workers are not journalists in a traditional sense, but that they have the potential to help fill gaps in coverage. “As mainstream media is cutting back, the digital revolution is making it such that the public doesn’t have to take what the media serves up — they can be the curators of their information,” Abbott said.

Thomas Seifert, a foreign correspondent for the Austrian daily Die Presse, jumped on the idea of NGOs as news producers. When he was covering the Afghan elections, the personal blog of a UN field worker had an impact on his own coverage: “During the election phase, [the UN worker] wrote wonderful pieces on his personal blog,” Seifert said. The UN’s press releases were not, he hesitated to explain, quite as helpful.

Seifert sees social media and the connections it lets him forge with NGOs as a great tool for journalists; field-workers-turned-Facebook-friends have brought him great leads on stories in India and Afghanistan. But he also warned about the pitfalls. An NGO has to have “credibility, experience and proof,” Seifert said, quoting fellow panelist Franz Küberl, the president of Caritas Austria, a Catholic charity. “That’s a very good compass for us.”

Seifert described hopping a flight to Sudan with a Christian NGO. The story he saw unfold was the NGO freeing slaves who’d been kidnapped. “Henchmen” with cash bought their freedom. “It looked wonderful on camera,” Seifert said. “They came in with huge bags of money…it was great pictures.”

Two weeks after the story ran, he and a colleague at The Boston Globe started to think, “Come on, this is really too perfect.” The New Yorker eventually did the same story, raising questions about the motivations of the NGO, writing a more nuanced look at slavery, NGOs and the relationships with the government. NGOs have plenty of interests themselves, Seifert noted. In unstable places, they may prefer to work with one faction of the government over another.

Simon Cottle of the Cardiff School for Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies offered a broader perspective on how NGOs struggle with the new media world, based on interviews he’s conducted with Australian NGOs. Cottle argued that social media isn’t the future, but just a piece of a much larger galaxy of media that NGOs must operate within.

His presentation, which included points he’s written about for the Lab, touched on how competitive the new landscape is. NGOs fight to build up a “brand” and bend what they do to get media coverage.

“It may occassionally be possible for NGOs to lead rather than follow prevailing media logic,” Cottle concluded.

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.

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.

December 21 2009

17:30

Glenda Cooper: When lines between NGO and news organization blur

[Not too long ago, it was clear who was a producer of news — and who were the sources who fed them. Not so in a world where the production of media has been democratized, and the rules that governed that production are up in the air. In this essay, journalist Glenda Cooper examines several cases where those lines have been blurred. This is the sixth part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

“Dear Sir. My name is Mohammed Sokor…from Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab. There is an alarming issue here. People are given too few kilograms of food. You must help.”1 Was this a note — as The Economist asked — delivered to a handily passing rock star-turned-philanthropist? An emotional plea caught on a BBC camera?

No, Mr. Sokor from Kenya is a much more modern communicator than that. In 2007, he texted this appeal to the mobile phones of two United Nations officials in London and Nairobi. He had found the numbers by surfing the Internet in a café at the north Kenyan camp.

The humanitarian world is changing. New information and communication technology is altering how we report, where we report from, and most of all, who is doing the reporting. These developments coincide with mainstream media coming under increasing financial pressure and withdrawing from foreign bureaux. This is a trend that extends beyond the United States. In early 2009, the think tank POLIS together with Oxfam published a report warning that international coverage is likely to decrease under the new public service broadcasting regime being worked out in the U.K. And in 2008, the U.K. tabloid the Daily Mirror said as part of the latest round of job cuts they were abolishing the post of foreign editor altogether. Meanwhile, citizen journalists and NGOs have been rushing to fill the gap. The mainstream media, getting free filmed reports and words, often sees this as a win-win situation. This raises three key issues:

— Do these new entrants to humanitarian reporting mean that we are seeing more diverse stories being told and more diverse voices being heard? Does the fundamental logic of reporting change?

— Are viewers/readers aware of the potential blurring of the lines between aid agencies and the media when NGOs act as reporters?

— How are aid agencies being affected by citizen journalists acting increasingly as watchdogs?

Media and aid agencies: a symbiotic relationship

The relationship between the media and aid agencies used to be well-defined and almost symbiotic in nature. This section will capture the essence of this relationship by taking a critical stance. The subsequent sections will then look at how this relationship is changing as well as the role citizen journalists play in this context.

The former UN emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, has talked about the way the world’s disaster victims are caught up in a “kind of humanitarian sweepstakes…and every night 99 percent of them lose, and one percent win.” The one-percent winners usually owe their good fortune to media coverage.

To illustrate the argument, the table below shows the death toll in the December 2004 tsunami as judged by the UN Special Envoy, and the number of stories written in British newspapers (Dec. 19, 2004 to Jan. 16, 2005) as recorded by Lexis Nexis.2

Indonesia: 167,000 dead or missing; 343 stories
Sri Lanka: 35,000 dead or missing; 729 stories
Thailand: 8,200 dead or missing; 771 stories

The death toll in Indonesia dwarfs that of Sri Lanka and Thailand — it is roughly 20 times that of Thailand — yet Indonesia received barely half the media coverage as Thailand. Not only was it quicker, easier and cheaper for the media to get to Sri Lanka and Thailand than to Indonesia, but there were many more tourists blogging, sending in photographs, and filming from the first two areas, contributing those vital shots of the wave as it happened.

This media coverage translated into increased aid. So many aid workers poured into Sri Lanka that they were dubbed a “second tsunami.” In the year after the tsunami, a Disasters Emergency Committee evaluation noted that Indonesia had suffered 60 percent of the damage but received only 31 percent of the funding.3

But the tsunami was such an extraordinary event — perhaps it was a one-off? Not at all. Another example is provided by the difference in media coverage after the acute natural disasters in Burma and China in spring 2008. In Burma, the military junta tried to keep the international media out during Cyclone Nargis, while the Chinese authorities allowed the media in to follow the Sichuan earthquake. Figures reported in the Times on May 22, 2008 — 20 days after Nargis and 10 days after the quake — showed that despite Burma having almost twice as many people dead or missing, China was attracting far more aid.

These examples show that the more media-friendly the disaster, the more money it attracts. In the past, at its most extreme, disaster coverage has been a kind of moral bellwether for the nation.4 Aid agencies follow these waves of coverage and in turn provide access and footage to the media. Yet when covering famines, earthquakes, or tsunamis, the media have not always prioritized establishing objectivity, and aid agencies have not always sought to correct the lack of balance.

New ways of reporting disasters

In the past the relationship between aid agencies and journalism, as described above, prospered because only a few people had access to places where important events happened — or information about significant events occurring. Now, new technologies — including SMS, mobile video and the Internet — increasingly offer ordinary people the ability to reach audiences they could never have reached before. Dan Gillmor has described the December 2004 tsunami as a “turning point” that set in place this new dynamic. While not the first event to use user-generated content (UCG), it was perhaps the first disaster where the dominant images we remember come not from journalists but from ordinary people. As Tom Glocer, head of Reuters, noted, none of Reuters’ 2,300 journalists or 1,000 stringers were on the beaches when the waves struck.

Since then the speed, volume, and intensity of citizen journalism have all increased rapidly. In early 2005, the BBC received, on average, 300 emails a day. By mid-2008, this had risen to between 12,000 and 15,000, and the corporation employed 13 people around the clock solely to deal with UCG. With photographs and video the increase has been even more extreme. Two years ago, the BBC received approximately 100 photos or videos per week. Now they receive 1,000 on average and 11,000 in unusual circumstances. “It used to be exceptional events such as the tsunami or 7/7,” says Vicky Taylor, former head of interactivity, BBC, referring to the July 2005 London Tube bombings. “Now people are seeking out news stories and sharing information.”5

People are adapting different forms of media to make their words and pictures available to a wider audience. The microblogging site Twitter broke the news of the Chinese earthquakes, and Burmese bloggers used the social networking site Facebook to raise awareness of the 2007 protests. Also in Burma, many of those who sought to get out information about Cyclone Nargis opted to use email through Gmail and, in particular, its messaging service Google Talk, because the junta found Gmail more difficult to monitor.6

As new actors enter the formerly privileged information-sharing sphere dominated by the mainstream media and aid agencies, there are increased possibilities of more diverse stories being told, and more diverse voices being heard. In the past, those affected by humanitarian crises have traditionally been spoken for by aid agencies or mainstream reporters. For example, Michael Buerk’s seminal BBC report in 1984 which alerted the world to the famine in Ethiopia featured only two voices — his own and that of a (white) MSF doctor.7

Yet this is changing. As Sanjana Hattotuwa, of the Sri Lankan NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote: “citizen journalists [in Sri Lanka] are increasingly playing a major role in reporting deaths, the humanitarian fallout and hidden social costs of violent conflict.”8

In January 2008, Ushahidi (which means testimony in Swahili) was set up by four bloggers and technological experts. As Lokman Tsui explains in his essay in this series, the mashup used Google Earth technology to map incidents of crime and violence with ordinary people reporting incidents via SMS, phone or email. Ushahidi has been so successful that it was awarded a $200,000 grant from Humanity United to develop a platform that can be used around the world, and the website received an honourable mention in the 2008 Knight-Batten awards.

As Ory Okolloh, one of Ushahidi’s founders, says, “There were not many ’scoops’ per se but in some cases we had personal stories, e.g. about the victims, pictures that were not being shown in the media, and reports that were available to us before they hit the press. We were able to raise awareness (and for that matter learn of) a lot of the local peace initiatives that the mainstream media really wasn’t reporting.”9

Another Knight-Batten award winner is Global Voices, a nonprofit citizen media project set up at Harvard in 2004 which now has around 400,000 visits a month and utilizes 100 regular authors. It mainly links to blogs but is increasingly using Facebook, Twitter, Livejournal, and Flickr as well.

However, it is important to critically assess the significance and the impact of this trend. Verification of citizen journalism is difficult, hoaxing is an ever-present possibility, and the outpouring of material does not always elucidate. As Sarah Boseley of the Guardian reflected on her paper’s three-year commitment to report on the Ugandan village of Katine, when the paper gave out disposable cameras to the villagers in the hope of getting a new perspective, “most of them,” she said, “just took pictures of their cows.”

And such voices are most commonly framed in accordance with traditional news standards rather than challenging them. Citizen journalism may also unwittingly skew the definition of what is important towards the unexpected or the spectacular and the dramatic, focusing, for example, on a natural catastrophe such as an earthquake rather the long-term famine. As Thomas Sutcliffe of the Independent commented: “The problem with citizen journalists — just like all of us — is that they are incorrigible sensationalists.”10

Different narrators — more diverse voices?

But if every citizen with a cellphone or Internet access can become a reporter, where does this leave the traditional gatekeepers (journalists) and the gatekeepers to disaster zones (aid workers)?

As pointed out above, in the past, journalists turned to aid agencies to get access to disasters and “real” people. The agencies received a name-check in return for facilitating access. The result was a symbiotic relationship in which it was to the advantage of both sides that the humanitarian “story” was as strong as possible. With the growth of UGC, this control of the story has disappeared. As John Naughton, professor of public understanding of technology at the Open University, agrees: “UGC is now blowing that [relationship] apart.”11

As a result, three trends have developed. First, aid agencies have turned themselves into reporters for the mainstream media, providing cash-strapped foreign desks with free footage and words. Second, they have also tried to take on citizen journalists by utilizing the blogosphere. Third, the agencies are simultaneously facing challenges from citizen journalists who are acting as watchdogs and critics and who can transmit their criticisms to a global audience.

The origins of the first trend stretch back as far as the 1990s and the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle combined with, as Nik Gowing points out, aid agencies having to salvage their reputation after accusations of misinformation during the Rwandan genocide.12 The two agencies who led this charge in the U.K. were Oxfam and Christian Aid. They both hired former journalists to run their press operations as pseudo-newsrooms. Both agencies pushed the idea of press officers as “fireman” reporters — on the ground as soon as possible after a disaster occurred to gather and film information themselves. Oxfam protocol written for their UK press office in 2007, for example, demanded that a press officer sent to a disaster should use an international cellphone, a local cellphone, a satellite phone, a laptop (capable of transmitting stills and short video clips), and a digital camera.13

Perhaps the clearest example of this development occurred during Cyclone Nargis, when a package filmed by Jonathan Pearce, a press office at the aid agency Merlin, led the BBC Ten O’Clock News on May 18, 2008. (Pearce also wrote a three-part series on the subject for the Guardian.) In the two and a half minute report — which was revoiced by BBC correspondent Andrew Harding — all but 32 seconds had been filmed by Merlin. In many cases, such collaborations have worked out well; news organizations receive content at little or no cost, while aid agencies are able to further their mission and reach larger audiences. But there has also been a potentially dangerous blurring of lines.

Fiona Callister, of the Catholic charity CAFOD, said her press office sometimes provided features that went in UK national newspapers unchanged – just re-bylined with the name of a staff feature writer.14 And in a piece from the Observer entitled “In Starvation’s Grip,” with three bylines — Tim Judah, Dominic Nutt, and Peter Beaumont15 — it is not made clear that two of the authors were Observer journalists and one a Christian Aid press officer.

For some, this is a necessary evil; they would say that NGOs are the only entities seriously funding foreign reporting. The distinguished photographer Marcus Bleasdale said recently, “[o]ver the last ten years I would say 80-85 per cent [of my work] has been financed by humanitarian agencies. To give one example, in 2003 I made calls to 20 magazines and newspapers saying I wanted to go to Darfur. Yet I made one call to Human Rights Watch, sorted a day rate, expenses and five days later I was in the field.”16

Bleasdale has had a long and distinguished career, especially in Darfur. But there are concerns about what might happen in less experienced hands than his. Dan Gillmor has called humanitarians acting as reports “almost-journalism.” Some observers argue that as aid agencies become reporters and conform to dominant media logic, they lose opportunities for advocacy and also any credibility they formerly possessed. Yet the real problem appears to be as Gillmor warns: “They’re falling short today in several areas, notably the one that comes hardest to advocates: fairness.”

Certainly broadcasters now appear to be less laissez faire about using NGOs as their unpaid reporters than in the past. The Merlin package used by the BBC was so keen to mention its debt that Merlin was given numerous name-checks. This — in the U.K. at least — may be linked to a heightened sense of responsibility after a succession of scandals in 2007 that revealed “faked” footage in documentaries, and which resulted in both the BBC and the major commercial channel ITV being censured. These scandals themselves did not have anything to do with NGOs but added to a climate of caution in news as well as documentaries. Certainly by acknowledging the provenance, it absolved the news organizations of responsibility if the footage should later prove controversial — especially given that recent crises have included Burma and Gaza.

Second, aid agencies are also adapting by seeking to become citizen journalists themselves. The Disasters Emergency Committee, in its 2007 Sudan appeal, persuaded the three UK party leaders to each record a message that could be put up on YouTube. Save the Children has launched its own “fly on the wall” documentary from Kroo Bay in Sierra Leone. Rachel Palmer of Save the Children said that while numbers remained relatively small, those who clicked onto the site spent on average 4.5 minutes there. But the main success was not explaining development but to “bear witness…to show people the similarity between their own children and an eight-year-old in Sierra Leone.”17.

And in 2008, the British Red Cross even ventured into the world of alternate reality games to build the game Traces of Hope written by the scriptwriter of Bebo’s KateModern. Aimed at 15- to 18-year-olds in the U.K., it attempted to engage players and introduce them to the consequences of the trauma of war, and how the Red Cross helps victims of conflict.

While NGOs are educating themselves in new media, however, they are facing a challenge: citizen journalists are increasingly becoming watchdogs for NGOs, thus consolidating a third trend.

In her 2006 report for the UN Special Envoy, Imogen Wall points out that in Aceh there were two to three mobile phones per refugee camp. When I visited Banda Aceh in 2007, aid agencies had found to their cost that instead of being grateful beneficiaries there was an articulate and determined population using new media (such as texting, and digital photographs) effectively when they felt the reconstruction process was not going quickly enough. They would use such methods often in collaboration with traditional media such as the local newspaper Serambi Indonesia or the local TV news programme Aceh Dalamberita.

“The community is smart in playing the media game,” says Christelle Chapoy of Oxfam in Banda Aceh. “We have had the geuchiks (village chiefs) saying quite openly to us — if you don’t respond to our demands we will call in the media.”18

This may mean unwelcome criticism, or, at its most severe, it can put people in danger. Those aid agencies who find themselves attacked online in one area may find more serious consequences in other parts of the world. As Vincent Lusser of ICRC said: “In a globalised media environment, people even in remote conflict areas are connected to the Internet. Therefore our colleagues in Kabul have to think that what happens in Afghanistan can affect our colleagues elsewhere in the world.”

Conclusion

Citizen journalism can mean that more diverse voices — for example, earthquake survivors in Pakistan, tsunami survivors in Banda Aceh or bloggers in Burma — are being heard. This new wealth of angles can act as a corrective to the previous patriarchal approach where reporters and aid agencies acted as mouthpieces. Neither aid agencies nor the traditional media can return to the control they had in the past. The old certainties about the gatekeeping role that aid agencies had — and journalists utilized — have gone, and both sides are grappling with this new world.

It is important not to be too idealistic about citizen journalism. Without checks and balances, UGC can spread misinformation and even be used as a dangerous weapon — witness the ethnic hatred spread by SMS messages in the aftermath of the December 2007 Kenyan elections.

New media has also seen a potential blurring of boundaries between journalists eager for material but strapped for cash, and aid agencies fighting in a competitive marketplace and using more creative means to get stories placed. If journalists use aid workers’ words and footage they must clearly label it as such. If they are accepting a trip from an aid agency — so-called “beneficent embedding”19 — then they should be honest about it.

If aid agencies act as reporters they must consider whether they are acting as journalists or as advocates. While journalists — if sometimes imperfectly — work on the principle of impartiality, the aid agency is usually there to get a message across: to raise money, to raise awareness, to change a situation. When they act as journalists this often becomes blurred. The danger, as Gillmor points out, is a growth in “almost journalism,” a confusion both for aid agencies as to what they are trying to do, and for the viewer/reader about what they are being presented with.

For those agencies who are turning from traditional media to using their own websites, the key point is that to be successful, such footage and websites need to be of as good quality as those produced by traditional media for sophisticated consumers. The associated cost privileges the efforts of larger and well-funded NGOs.

Meanwhile agencies must realize that they are not the only ones grappling with new media. Citizen journalists have the potential to act as NGOs’ watchdogs, as the mainstream media retreat from foreign reporting. As the experience in Aceh and elsewhere shows, local people are not just grateful beneficiaries; instead, they can be articulate and angry critics.

And finally new information and communication technologies that enable these developments cannot be ignored. The Economist reports that following Mr. Sokor’s appeal, the WFP did boost rations in the Dagahaley refugee camp. Is that blunt text message a harbinger of things to come?

Glenda Cooper is a journalist and academic. She is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford. She was a visiting fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2007-08 and the 2006-07 Guardian Research Fellow at Nuffield. She is a consulting editor at the Daily Telegraph.

References

Bleasdale, M. Speaking at “The News Carers: Are Aid Groups Doing too much Real Newsgathering? A Debate at the Frontline Club.” New York, February 28, 2008.

Cooper, G. “Anyone Here Survived a Wave, Speak English and Got a Mobile? Aid Agencies, the Media and Reporting Disasters since the Tsunami.” The 14th Guardian Lecture. Nuffield College, Oxford, November 5, 2007.

Cottle, S. and Nolan, D. “Global Humanitarianism and The Changing Aid-Media Field.” Journalism Studies 8, No. 6 (2007), pp. 862-878.

Gowing, N. “New Challenges and Problems for Information Management in Complex Emergencies: Ominous Lessons from the Great Lakes and Eastern Zaire in Late 1996 and early 1997.” Conference paper given at Dispatches from Disaster Zones conference, May 1998.

Hattotuwa, S. “Who’s Afraid of Citizen Journalists?” In TVEP/UNDP, Communicating Disasters. An Asia-Pacific Resource Book, 2007.

Judah, T., Nutt, D. and Beaumont, P. “In Starvation’s Grip.” The Observer, June 9, 2002.

Moeller, S. Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Famine, Disease, War and Death. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Oxfam. “Guide to Media Work in Emergencies.” Internal document, Oxfam GB, Oxford, 2007.

Sutcliffe, T. “Ethics Aside, Citizen Journalists Get Scoops.” The Independent, January 2, 2007.

Notes
  1. The Economist 2007
  2. Cooper 2007
  3. Vaux 2005
  4. Moeller 1999
  5. Interview with Vicky Taylor, May 7 2008
  6. Interview with Samanthi Dissanayake, BBC producer, 7 May 2008
  7. Buerk 1984
  8. Hattotuwa 2007
  9. Email from Ory Okolloh, September 5, 2008
  10. Sutcliffe 2007
  11. Interview with John Naughton, November 27, 2006
  12. Gowing 1998
  13. Oxfam 2007
  14. Telephone interview with Fiona Callister, August 29, 2007
  15. Judah, Nutt, and Beaumont, 2002
  16. Bleasdale 2008
  17. Phone interview Jan 20, 2009
  18. Interview, Banda Aceh, 30 Apr 2007
  19. Cottle and Nolan 2007

December 14 2009

15:00

Bringing NGO news into the mainstream: The case of OneWorld.net and Yahoo News

[It's one thing for NGOs to get into the news-producing business; it's another for their news to get noticed. Here Larry Kirkman and Laurie Moy explore the case of one NGO, OneWorld.net, and how its partnership with megalith Yahoo! News has put its work before an entirely new audience. This is the fifth part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

One month after September 11, 2001, OneWorld.net, a global network of civil society-based public media centers, launched a daily service on Yahoo! News in its World News section. Yahoo News was then, and continues to be, the top rated online news source according to Alexa.com and ComSource, and it reaches more than 43 million unique visitors per month.1 How did an NGO-based news organization become a contributor to the most visited news portal online? The answer lies in the perfect storm of innovative editorial policies, a challenging news media environment, evolving media advocacy, and private foundation support.

Yahoo! and OneWorld editors both believed that U.S. audiences were motivated by the national crisis to understand more of the world beyond their borders. In an email communication, the current Yahoo! News Editor, Sarah Wright, recalled her organization’s motivation:

Yahoo invited OneWorld.net to join its world news service in Fall 2001 to complement the coverage of mainstream sources, such as AP and Reuters, with daily reports that tapped into the knowledge of nonprofit organizations. OneWorld journalists provide a unique and valuable resource to Yahoo by providing context for international headlines and voices from the front lines of international development.2

Yahoo! had been poised to broaden its news sources just before 9/11, in response to a study by the New York-based media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) that criticized Yahoo’s “male, white, and right” bias. According to OneWorld International News Editor at the time, Sebastian Zebania, the FAIR study, titled Diversity Gap in Online Journalism, “showed Yahoo’s coverage to be monochrome needing to diversify quotes, subjects, etc., as it grew global.”3 On August 24, 2001, FAIR reported on its website that Yahoo! News senior producer Kourosh Karimkhany had thanked the group for the critique and affirmed a commitment to improve: “To state it succinctly, we agree with you 100 percent. We have been trying to achieve exactly what you suggested.” Karimkhany wrote that the Yahoo! News mission is “to represent almost every perspective… We encourage Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting to watch our site over the next few months. We hope you will notice a broader journalistic range.”

It was just two months later that OneWorld joined the Yahoo! World News page. The timing of this relationship was significant. By 2001, the American news media environment was feeling the growing pains of the digital revolution. Internet news portals were taking off and traditional outlets were struggling to catch up. At the same time, U.S. mainstream media were drastically downsizing their foreign correspondence, eliminating international bureaus and relying on government-supplied perspectives. OneWorld offered an alternative mission that challenged the dichotomy of popular and serious. The conventional wisdom of news media gatekeepers was that U.S. audiences were simply not interested in international news. OneWorld believed that the burden of finding engaging international news was not with the audience, but rather with the news media. It explained its approach, reaching out to popular audiences through the internet with serious content, in a grant proposal to the Veatch Foundation:

Today’s news media and political structures do not engage or fully inform Americans on most issues of global significance. The same elite sources are quoted time and again and way too much time is devoted to spin, drama, and sensationalism instead of the real issues that affect people around the world. Politicians largely focus on the issues and offer the platitudes that will get them re-elected, ignoring many topics and perspectives that impact millions of people worldwide. These political and media failings have turned off countless Americans to important global issues.4

OneWorld: History and outreach

OneWorld was launched in 1995 with the mission to use the World Wide Web to engage wide-spread audiences on international issues and causes. The co-founders, Peter Armstrong and Anuradha Vittachi, called it the first “global justice portal” on the emerging Web landscape. Its central purpose was to aggregate and highlight the content of development NGOs such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, realizing the great value of the trusted brand names and social networks of the organizations.

The two founders brought a wealth of broadcasting and multimedia production experience, as well as editorial expertise, to these nonprofit relationships that established a professional media framework for the journalistic enterprise over the next 15 years. In identifying, selecting, annotating and contextualizing the knowledge of development NGOs, they set high expectations for the application of journalistic standards to reporting based on the news, research, opinion, public engagement, and advocacy campaigns of civil society.

In Vittachi’s brief history of the origins of OneWorld, published online in September 2003, she explained that the first websites for dozens of organizations, and in return, “partners agreed to share their material with the rest of the partnership and global audience at large—at no charge.” She made the case that OneWorld “supported partners by raising their profile and extending their outreach,” by aggregating their content and their audiences.

The original OneWorld project was based at One World Broadcasting Trust, known for its social media awards. In 1999, it was sold to a new UK-based charity, OneWorld International Foundation, to accommodate a growing global enterprise that has included centers in the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, Spain, the United States, India, Zambia, the United Kingdom, Costa Rica, Austria, Canada, South East Europe, and Indonesia. The centers are autonomous organizations with their own boards of directors, special projects, extensive organizational networks of more than 2,000 NGOs worldwide, and a wide range of funding sources, including private foundations, government development agencies, partner dues, and individual donations. The centers operate under the OneWorld banner and with a set of common principles, standards, and agreements to share content and governance responsibilities.

OneWorld United States is a key component in the OneWorld network and supplies several different news products, including a bi-monthly online magazine, Perspectives, and a Daily Headlines service. All of OneWorld’s content, including more than 100,000 articles, is fully indexed and searchable.

A 2007 survey of Daily Headlines readers revealed an even split along gender lines and indicated that 48 percent of readers are in countries other than the United States. More than a third (38 percent) of Daily Headlines readers work in the nonprofit sector and the majority (61 percent) were interested in all geographic regions. The least interesting region for Daily Headline subscribers was North America.5

The placement of OneWorld on Yahoo! News allowed OneWorld to reach out to a broader, more “mainstream” audience, which complemented OneWorld’s existing demographics. A year after joining the Yahoo! News network , OneWorld conducted an online survey to collect demographic information about its new audience on Yahoo. The survey found that OneWorld News on Yahoo! readers were mostly male (66 percent) and middle-aged (41 percent were between the ages of 36 and 50). About one third (35 percent) worked in the business sector; only 12 percent of respondents worked for non-profit organizations, which marked a departure from the mostly non-profit and academic audience of the OneWorld community.

In terms of readers’ regional interests, Yahoo’s mainstream audience presents OneWorld with both an opportunity and a challenge: most readers were based in North America (83 percent) and tended to be interested in the developed world (North America 67 percent and Europe 48 percent) and the Middle East (51 percent). There was a noticeable lack of interest in developing countries (Asia 33 percent, Africa, 31 percent, and Latin American and the Caribbean 28 percent). Many respondents in this survey said OneWorld provided a unique perspective that they did not get elsewhere. Most respondents noted they got their international news primarily from mainstream sources, including AP, Reuters, CNN, and the New York Times.

A lack of brand recognition of OneWorld among the respondents indicated that, through Yahoo!, OneWorld was reaching a different audience from the one that was reached through its website and Daily Headlines service. The challenge therefore was to engage that audience and expose them to new perspectives. OneWorld met that challenge by bringing content to Yahoo! that may be slightly tailored to the new audience, but it always links back to a more diverse set of stories than that to which the Yahoo! audience may have been accustomed.

Support from mainstream philanthropy

The changing media environment was not going unnoticed by American philanthropy either. In 2001, the Ford Foundation sent a significant signal to the nonprofit and media sectors with its first grant to OneWorld, for $275,000, “to expand its civic society Internet portal.” Ford support for OneWorld has continued to the present. The winter 2003 edition of Ford Foundation Report featured OneWorld TV on its cover with the title “The Next Information Age. Reality TV the World Should Be Watching.” The introduction to the edition credited OneWorld for “demonstrating the dramatic potential for serving up extensive menus of news and commentary… a full range of perspectives and world events…new access for voices not often heard…”

Funding from the Omidyar Network and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has supplemented the Ford support. In 2005, Pierre Omidyar, co-founder of eBay, explained to Business Week magazine why his foundation chose to get involved:

We’ve done a little bottom-up media with OneWorld. I have a sense that the traditional media hasn’t been aggressive enough talking about important issues. The empowering nature of people reporting their own news, speaking out, and challenging governments and even traditional media sometimes is a very powerful thing.

President Jonathan Fanton of the MacArthur Foundation, which has made grants to OneWorld since 2004, agreed that OneWorld had a vital role to play:

Modern technology makes it possible to broaden the sources of reliable information and bring a greater diversity of voices into the public debate about such topics as human rights and environmental sustainability. In harnessing the power of new communications technologies, the OneWorld network allows thousands of organizations around the world, ranging from community groups in rural Africa to large nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch to provide alternative perspectives on pressing global social issues.

In the foundation’s August 2006 News from MacArthur, Fanton said, “The spread of digital technology is dramatically changing news gathering, reporting, and broadcasting, as well as how people choose to access information,” and described OneWorld as one of the “creative new efforts to make better information from diverse sources about events across the globe available to U.S. audiences.”

These “creative new efforts” were a direct result of OneWorld’s unique editorial policy. As articulated on its website, OneWorld seeks a “solutions-oriented approach to presenting the news,” with a focus on “global issues known to be of interest to North Americans,” and “programs showcasing successful efforts to overcome development challenges.”

This editorial policy was informed and shaped by the insights of the Global Interdependence Initiative (GII). GII was launched under the leadership of staff at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation in 1999, and housed at the Aspen Institute, to use the tools of public opinion research, issue framing analysis, media content research, and cognitive linguistics to develop new approaches for engaging U.S. audiences in international issues. In the Who We Are introduction on its Web site, GII describes its purpose in this way, “to help broaden and deepen the American constituency for principled and effective U.S. foreign policy.” This extensive and well-funded project found that the conventional wisdom of news editors and publishers about the lack of consumer interest in international news was challenged by a strong indication of interest in international problems, such as infectious disease, labor standards, and global warming that were perceived as requiring multi-faceted and multi-lateral solutions.

OneWorld’s outreach and communications objectives

Because OneWorld’s goal is to communicate global issues to an American audience, most articles are international in scope, and the writers are encouraged to show how these issues are relevant to Americans whenever possible. To that end, OneWorld has provided a combination of articles that capitalize on “hot” topics along with those telling the “unknown” stories.

One of the most successful articles appeared in February 2006. Abid Aslam’s “Bottled Water: Nectar of the Frauds?” leapt into the international scene and generated more than half a million hits on the Yahoo! World News page in the first week alone. The article was re-posted on hundreds of blogs and other alternative news sites. In that first week, more than 2,200 Yahoo readers ranked the article with an average ranking of 4 (out of 5) stars. What’s more, the article generated tremendous discussion—900 comments to the article were posted onto the Yahoo! World News site alone. The article, drawing on the expertise of the environmental policy think tank the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), capitalized on a growing interest among the public as well as the mainstream media on the environmental effects of bottled water.

The piece clearly articulated environmental problems that affect the entire planet, specifically highlighting the personal effects felt in India and China. In addition, it went a step further by highlighting how villages in India and communities in Texas and the Great Lakes region of North America similarly suffer from the effects of water extraction, as related to increased consumption of bottled water. In this way, OneWorld took a highly popular topic, and made the connection between the global and the local, as well as the foreign and the domestic.

Another article, “Fossil Fuels Set to Become Relics, Says Research Group,” also rode the headlines and took the net by storm. It was the most viewed story on all of Yahoo! News on September 29, 2005, and it was OneWorld’s most emailed story (950 sends). The story capitalized on the growing interest in renewable energy in the country, but also drew upon the knowledge and experience of the nonprofit world, specifically Worldwatch Institute, in order to make the content relevant. That week more than 250,000 people viewed the article on Yahoo’s web site, and many more reposted and distributed the story through their own blogs and services.

In addition to blockbuster pieces that ride popular headlines, OneWorld also provides articles that present lesser known stories and the largely unheard voices behind them. For example, in November 2005, OneWorld contributed a piece to Yahoo! titled, “Shell Ordered to Stop Wasteful Poisonous ‘Gas Flaring’ in Nigeria.”

The story reported on the decision of a high court in Nigeria to force multinational oil companies to stop a practice called “gas flaring.” The article provided important context to an audience unfamiliar with the issue, and it explained how the practice affects local populations. It presented the voices and perspectives of not only the Nigerian court system, but also indigenous groups, as well as three local and international NGOs.

In December 2005, an article written by Niko Kyriakou highlighted the continuing struggle of residents of Bhopal, India, to force Dow Chemical to take responsibility for a deadly gas leak that happened 21 years ago. The article went beyond the typical corporate responsibility piece to include points of view from local and international activists, American college students, governments, and shareholders. In addition, the piece made the connection between the Indian struggle and a Texas woman who was also battling Dow in an environmental pollution case. Pursuant to OneWorld’s goals, the piece provided context, connection, and relevance.

An article that appeared in January 2006 gave American readers insight into an issue that received very little coverage in the United States—the effects of genetically modified seeds on small farmers in other parts of the world. In “‘Suicide Seeds’ Could Spell Death of Peasant Agriculture, UN Meeting Told,” OneWorld reporter Haider Rizvi called upon indigenous groups from South America as well as local and international activists to explain the issue of Terminator seeds. Perspectives from these groups were presented alongside those of governments and agribusinesses, providing an alternative perspective and much needed context.

By contributing these lesser known stories, OneWorld continues to pursue its goal of exposing American audiences to truly global issues. The effects of this were evident in the 2002 reader survey report, where more than half of respondents reported that the service had changed the way they thought about issues, and 23 percent reported taking some kind of action as a result of reading the OneWorld article. These actions included writing letters, e-mailing and calling members of Congress, taking part in campaigns, and discussing the issues with friends.

Partnerships: a win-win situation

The relationship between Yahoo! and OneWorld has been a successful one, and the objectives of both organizations continue to be met. By 2009, the list of world news providers on Yahoo! had grown to include Agence France-Presse, Christian Science Monitor, Time, National Public Radio, McClatchy Newspapers, and BBC News Video. The continued presence of OneWorld has been a testimony to its distinctive role in the mix of these mainstream news sources. Yahoo! News Editor Sarah Wright summarized:

For over seven years, the OneWorld service has provided links to organizations that are knowledgeable and active in the areas being covered by the stories. In this way, OneWorld acts as a navigator to the non-profit landscape, which contributes to the depth of coverage, and distinguishes it from other news services.6

OneWorld continues to work towards the goal of making “voices from the village” heard. In January 2009, OneWorld began adding some of its Daily Headlines, which are largely contributed by members of OneWorld’s nonprofit network, to its Yahoo! service. But this does not mean that OneWorld simply serves as a mouthpiece for organizations on the ground. Instead its journalists and editors work with nonprofit staffs to meet the challenge of communicating the stories and knowledge with journalistic skill and integrity. The January 15, 2009, article “One Third of Kenyans Face Major Food Shortage,” drawing on ActionAid’s experiences in Kenya, for example, highlighted an issue that had been largely ignored by mainstream U.S. media, but was gravely serious for more than 10 million people in Kenya. “ActionAid, a group we’ve worked with for many years, was raising alarm bells, but very few here in America were hearing those bells,” said OneWorld U.S. Managing Editor Jeffrey Allen. “ActionAid has been working in Kenya for decades. They’re the experts. They can tell our readers what people in rural Kenya are experiencing much better than any bureaucrat in Nairobi could, and even better than most journalists who fly in and fly out—if they even bother to do that anymore.”7

But ActionAid’s communications officers are not journalists, which is where OneWorld’s editors stepped in, complementing ActionAid’s raw report from Kenya with context and background from Oxfam International, another aid group working in the country, as well as several development news sources, before publishing the whole package to Yahoo! News. In this way, OneWorld helped the mainstream audience in the United States better understand the situation in Kenya—and the larger issues of the global food crisis—while getting the scoop directly from the individuals on the ground that are living the story every day. The links included by OneWorld’s editors then provided the mainstream audience on Yahoo! News a direct channel to begin participating in the stories they care about by further informing themselves and supporting the organizations taking action around the world.

OneWorld’s partnership with Yahoo! World News has had implications for both audiences and foreign news reporting. OneWorld has demonstrated that a news service can talk up to its audience, surprising them with how much they can know and how much others like them are doing. It has sought to engage, inform and equip its audience to be vocal and active, and in doing so has created a model for news that is solution-oriented, that explains social problems and illustrates them, and that is based on knowledge of activists and stakeholders on the ground. Through Yahoo!, OneWorld U.S. has been able to bring this model to a mainstream audience, giving a voice to the unheard and bringing new attention to their untold stories.

The partnership has also highlighted and encouraged an increasing appreciation for nonprofits as sources of news. Tremendous growth in the nonprofit-news sector, coupled with the expansion of opportunities for platforming nonprofit news on the mainstream news websites, has brought increased visibility and credibility to nonprofit news providers. OneWorld and Yahoo! were pioneers in this new environment, and their partnership is being replicated and reflected widely. The Associated Press, for example, announced on June 13, 2009 at the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference that it would begin distributing the work of four nonprofit news producers (Center for Public Integrity, Investigative Reporting Workshop, Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica) to its 1,500 member newspapers. What once was extraordinary is now accepted practice.

The news media environment is evolving quickly, and its relationship to audiences and news sources is changing as well. Mainstream media’s news gathering capacity is shrinking and many new media portals are too fragmented to fill the gap. As a result, many traditionally underserved and underrepresented audiences are becoming even more invisible than ever. Given this, and OneWorld’s commitment to “stories of the village,” it has decided to reach out further, by partnering with New America Media (NAM), a network of several thousand ethnic media organizations in the United States. This new partnership, according to Sandy Close, founder and Executive Director of NAM, demonstrates the opportunity to create a “newsbeat that connects hyperlocal sources overseas with hyperlocal sources in this country – a global-local axis of news and communications at a time when American journalism is both shrinking dramatically and focusing heavily on hyper-local news.”8

Larry Kirkman has been dean of the School of Communication at American University since 2001. He directs and develops academic and professional programs in journalism, film and media arts, and public communication. At American, he has established centers for innovation in public service media, including the Center for Social Media, the Investigative Reporting Workshop, J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, and the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, and partnerships and programs with many media organizations, including the Newseum, USA Today, NBC, and New America Media. His work has included public television documentaries and public service campaigns, including Connect for Kids with the Advertising Council and Union Yes for the AFL-CIO. He launched the US Center of OneWorld.net, created the American Film Institute’s National Video Festival, and edited a series of ten media guides, “Strategic Communications for Nonprofits.”

Laurie Moy is the executive director of Pearls of Africa, a nonprofit organization serving children with disabilities and their families in Uganda, a position she has held since July 2001. She is also regarded as an expert in online volunteering and network engagement and advocacy of nonprofits. She has traveled globally to host workshops and presentations on nonprofits and communications technologies, and in 2008 she served as the Connect US Fellow at Netcentric Campaigns. She also holds a master’s degree in international media from the American University School of Communication and School of International Service.

Notes
  1. Sarah Wright, personal communication, February 2, 2009
  2. Wright 2009
  3. Sebastian Zebani, personal communication, January 25, 2009
  4. Michael Litz, Letter of Inquiry to Veatch Foundation (internal document), April 8, 2008
  5. OneWorld.net (2007): Daily Headlines Annual Survey Results. OneWorld, July 2007
  6. Wright 2009
  7. Jeffrey Allen, personal communication, February 5, 2009
  8. Sandy Close, personal communication, October 26, 2009

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

November 23 2009

14:00

Natalie Fenton: Has the Internet changed how NGOs work with established media? Not enough

[The publishing power of the Internet has opened up new possibilities for NGOs seeking to spread their messages. But is this new access changing the kinds of messages NGOs create, or is it reinforcing old paradigms? Natalie Fenton of Goldsmiths, University of London, examines how the online landscape has changed NGO communications. This is the third part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

Publicity — both for campaigning and for fundraising — is a central aspect of all NGO work.1 For many NGOs, particularly the large, resource-rich organizations, responding to a media-saturated environment has meant a growth in press and PR offices increasingly staffed by trained professional journalists. These professionals apply the same norms and values to their work as any mainstream newsroom albeit with different aims and intentions. They use their contacts and cultural capital to gain access to key journalists and report increasing success in a media-expanded world.

Early exponents of the advantages of new communication technologies2 proclaimed that new media increase access and create a more level playing field. In reality, however, resource-poor organizations have been forced to rely on long-standing credibility established by proven news-awareness and issue relevance. They find it much harder to keep up with changes in technology and the explosion of news and information spaces, and much harder to stand out amidst the countless online voices competing for journalists’ attention.

This essay draws on a range of interviews with a variety of NGOs and journalists conducted throughout 2007 and 20083 to consider the NGO as news source and the nature of its relationship to the professional journalist in a new media environment.

To be noticed, NGOs are now expected to embrace all of the opportunities available to them in the digital world — from blogging, podcasts, and social networking sites to their own online news platforms and beyond. Below, I refer to this opportunity and expectation as both the seduction of space and the tyranny of technology. Servicing these different communication channels and technologies requires investment of time, money and technical skills, resources that are not equally available to all. Certain organizations, and particularly those that are resource-rich, may be getting more coverage (often online). But even in these cases, to better secure coverage, NGOs must modify their content to fit pre-established journalistic norms and values — a media logic that has led to “news cloning.”

Cloning the news

Here, “news cloning” refers to the practice by NGOs of providing news that mimics, or indeed matches, the requirements of mainstream news agendas. Davis4 notes how research on various campaigning organizations5 points to increasing use of professional press and publicity methods for political and economic gain. The large resource-rich organizations maximize this political and economic gain by employing trained journalists in press offices that often simulate professional news rooms. As one interviewee notes:

Certainly everyone in a particular section were journalists and intentionally so. When I was there I was the first one, I think, to have been a journalist. It was something new. That’s changing now, and they are wanting more journalists to come in. When I went for my interview, the boss said, it’s all changing and we’re very excited about media. [Interviewee A: Press officer of a large international NGO talking about a previous job in a similar organization]

Every NGO interviewee in this study reported an increase in media-related activity; the larger organizations have experienced a steady increase in paid press officers, most of whom have professional journalistic backgrounds, over the last ten years. These NGO news professionals spoke frequently of how they knew intrinsically what makes a news story:

I like to think I could bring a certain kind of instinct to it. [Interviewee A: Press officer, large international NGO]

Of how they used their network of journalist friends to shift stories:

My football team that I play for is the Press Association. Not that they actually work for the Press Association anymore but they work on the Daily Mail, The Independent, they’re all hacks and we play other hacks. How easy is that. It’s not like the well meaning press office sends out a press release saying “this is really important”, rubbish. [Interviewee A: Press officer, large international NGO]

Of how they perceive themselves as journalists:

Because I like to write the story. Because, having been a journalist, I want to do all of it. Often, the text we give them is used word for word or it’s word for word but with the third paragraph of it put first and then the second paragraph fourth or whatever. [Interviewee C: Press officer, large international NGO]

These large and resource-rich organizations “work” the mainstream news on a daily basis and seek to provide ready-made copy to fill the ever-expanding space available to news in the digital age. This may make these organizations very news-friendly and ensure they receive more media coverage. But there is little evidence that NGOs have managed to change news agendas and challenge normative conceptions of news criteria. On the contrary, pressures to reproduce these normative conceptions are increasing. The result is news cloning:

There is definitely pressure to kind of move on to something that might be perceived to be more newsworthy. [Interviewee H: Press officer, small international NGO]

Those who do news cloning can be seen as “political entrepreneurs”6. Their ability to be entrepreneurial is determined by the resources available to them. These resources include financial aspects (the capacity to maintain a press office and employ specific staff); the cultural capital associated with class, professional status, and expertise; and the legitimacy and credibility gained through previous activities within the political and media fields. In this way some NGOs have followed a “media logic”7 that conditions how they behave — how they provide news gatherers with material that conforms to the pre-established criteria of what news is.

I’m a proper old hack. I used to be on the other end of [press releases] and they just went straight in the bin, not a chance. You just put your journalistic hat on and you think, well, if I got that as a story then would I run it or not? [Interviewee E: Head of media, large international NGO]

As the news space has expanded so dramatically, with 24-hour rolling news and the Internet in particular, the onus upon such “political entrepreneurs” to reach and penetrate all of the various news platforms also increases. The ability to do this consistently and with rigor is time consuming, though not necessarily difficult with a ‘cloning’ mentality. Only those organizations with adequate numbers of suitably trained personnel can sustain the levels of activity necessary to blog, inhabit social networks, develop their own news pages, contribute to online forums, and so on:

So some of this [media work] actually is driven by individual staff members, because there aren’t so many of us. We can’t just hire in things, and we’re on quite tight budgets. It’s largely, who do we know? Can we do it in-house? Can our person who does membership databases spend some time doing this sort of thing? [Interviewee D: Press Officer of a small national NGO]

Smaller, resource-poor organizations that have small press offices with staff that have often come up through the ranks cannot keep pace with the information onslaught on mainstream news sites and platforms of their wealthier counterparts. As Davis8 notes, more resources:

mean more media contacts, greater output of information subsidies, multiple modes of communication and continuous media operations. Extreme differences in economic resources mean wealthy organizations can inundate the media and set the agenda while the attempts of resource-poor organizations quickly become marginalized.

So new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are far from expanding access to, and representation in, mainstream news media amongst resource-poor groups, as much of the early literature envisaged.9 Resources, in particular the ability to spend time and money on keeping up-to-date with technological advances and feeding an insatiable news space still structure access and determine levels of representation.

Seduction of space

The limitless potential of the Internet was recognized across the board, both with excitement because of the possibilities it offers, and with resignation because not all organizations have the resources to invest in it fully. The seductiveness of the space available creates a kind of tyranny for NGOs — a never-ending process of mediated reflexivity and a feeling that they can never do enough but must always keep trying:

We also started using photographs in reports, but that’s now moved on. There is a sense there is a need to not just have decent images for reports that illustrate graphically what you’ve written, but also to have short clips and testimonies from the people that you’re interviewing or, if this is not possible, from the [NGO] researcher. The aim is that those clips could be used by media organizations who don’t have the wherewithal to call in. [Interviewee H: Press officer, small international NGO]

The days of a couple of phone calls, a few press releases, and maybe a press conference are over. This world of source-journalist relations is faster and greedier than ever before. This is paradoxically leading to forces that reproduce existing power hierarchies on both sides. All news outlets are content-hungry, and NGOs need to feed the expanding news space relentlessly if they are to gain coverage. The seductiveness of space invites recognition of the huge potential for coverage but it is only realizable for those with resources and well-established relations with journalists, and those willing and able to fulfil normative news criteria.

The majority of NGOs feel that because of the space that journalists are now required to fill and the time pressures in which to do it, their copy gets picked up more readily and more rarely gets changed:

…journalists are now expected to write copy for the newspaper and write copy for the website and maybe to blog and maybe actually to produce podcasts now as well. So what we are looking at is how we can make the journalist’s job as easy as possible. They will take exactly what you give them. I think that has changed from before, when you gave a journalist a press release or an idea of a story that would then be worked up. I think now we see much more of our stuff appearing verbatim. [Interviewee J: Head of communications, large national NGO]

The sheer amount of news space and multiplicity of news platforms available has also led NGOs to seek out and prioritize the traditional, trusted news forms. They do this for two reasons. First, they believe that the high-profile, high-status news platforms will provide a springboard to all other forms of news dissemination, including all online news as other news organizations constantly fee off these sites10; and second, they believe that these outlets are still the most trusted news sites by the general public and the most closely watched by the powerful. Only two of the organizations interviewed showed any active awareness of alternative news sites, and even then these were sidelined in favour of the “big hitters”:

I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard of Indymedia, I don’t know what it is. My view is, if you write for BBC Online, then it gets out there anyway and it gets picked up by everyone. I don’t need to worry about phoning these people up and talking to Indymedia. I need to know that I’m not wasting my time. [Interviewee A: Press officer, large international NGO]

The obvious consequence of NGOs targeting traditionally powerful news outlets with more and more professional adeptness and news know-how is that established news values remain as dominant, and one could argue even more entrenched, than ever before. In other words, the Internet may provide constant possibilities for the fracturing of dominant discourses, but on the whole these possibilities remain unused and untapped. NGOs use new media simply as different ways to get the same story out. And the story is written to fit all the normative dimensions of mainstream news as closely as it possibly can.

The tyranny of technology: “Because we can, we do”

No organization could not have a website, could they? I mean, you couldn’t not have a website because you would look stupid. [Interviewee I: Head of communications, small national NGO]

In the larger, resource-rich NGOs, once new technology has been accepted as part and parcel of one’s media presence it becomes an endless process of revamping and updating. This is no small task, and frequently organizations reported a growth in staffing to deal with the new roles created (or required) by this new technology. Contrary to claims of new technology breaking down communication barriers due to ease of access and relative low cost, the relentless marketing of new software and new communication fads and fashions put ever more pressure on NGOs to maintain technological faculty at no small cost. The endless amount of space available, the multiplicity of news channels all requesting information and material along with the need to ‘keep-up’ with new technology trends was felt as a substantial pressure by many:

We currently have a sense in the organization that we do need to be venturing into new media but we’re held back by resources and time. [Interviewee F: Press officer, small, national NGO]

Organizations with small press offices simply can’t keep pace with the demand of 24-hour news, putting them at an immediate disadvantage:

Obviously the 24-hour rolling news programs are in themselves a problem. They almost discourage things because as soon as you get a news item then somebody else will pick it up and then somebody else will pick it up and so everybody wants another quote. [Interviewee G: Head of communications and policy of a medium national NGO]

Of course, the tyranny of technology is also accompanied by the communicational possibilities that the Internet offers outside of the mainstream news arena. Despite the perceived importance of gaining mainstream news coverage, and the efforts and constraints that this imposes on the activities of NGOs, the Internet has enabled resource-poor NGOs to gather information and disseminate their work more readily than ever before, particularly within and among their own publics. In an investigation into the websites of international and national environmental NGOs in the UK, Finland, Spain, Greece, and the Netherlands, Tsaliki11 argues that the Internet is most useful for intra- and interorganizational networking and collaboration. Rather than bringing in new forms of communication, on the whole it complements existing media techniques for issue promotion and awareness-raising.

There is also a growing literature on the use of the Internet by new social movements for oppositional political mobilization. Much of this literature agrees that although such activity may not point to identifiable new political projects, it does point to unprecedented political activity of a global nature.12 This form of networked technopolitics links marginalized groups and builds counter discourses. It resists the construction of a one-size-fits-all politics by insisting on the preservation of a multiplicity of political identities. Many of the grassroots groups involved in these new social movements consciously reject the mainstream media and seek to establish other, alternative means of communicating their message.13

As with other established communities (such as politicians and interested political groupings on the inner circle of Westminster14), so with the voluntary sector: The use of the Internet for intra- and interorganizational debating and sharing of information seems to have increased sociality and interactivity and augmented communicative ties. Internal communities of interested people are built and reinforced through the networks facilitated by new communication technologies:

We did some work on a very high profile campaign on Internet repression which caught the eye of a lot of bloggers and gave us a good reputation with them. So we started reaching out to the bloggers. We have now what we grandly call the e-Action Task Force, where there’s about 200 or so bloggers that we regularly send information to and encourage them to blog about those issues on behalf of our organization. [Interviewee B: Head of press, UK division of large, international NGO]

Conclusion

It appears that the Internet has given NGOs more opportunity to peddle their wares and get their voices heard, to build communities, and to exchange information and engage in communication. When it comes to mainstream news, however, these voices have been trained to deliver what mainstream organizations are crying out for — news that conforms to established, unchanging news criteria and provides journalistic copy at little or no cost. As a result, the line between the professional PR agency and the large-scale campaigning NGO has blurred into near extinction.

For those that do seek coverage in the mainstream media, the expansion of news platforms has resulted in the tried, tested, trusted, and thereby credible NGOs rising to the top of the pile. These are NGOs who can provide journalistic copy and have learnt the rules of the game. As news now comes from everywhere, conforming to normative news values is more crucial than ever before for gaining coverage.

This raises a critical question: If NGOs are simply doing the job of journalism — putting together well-researched, legally tight, impartial and objective stories — does it matter that it is them and not the professionals in news organizations that are making the news? Does it make any difference? There are three important rebukes to this line of argument.

Firstly, we need NGOs to be partial, occasionally illegal, and passionate about their cause — if they continue to mimic the requirements of mainstream, institutionalized news, then arguably they will fail in the role of advocacy, become no different than elite sources of information, and lose the position of public credibility (that comes by dint of distinction from elite sources15) that many are now enjoying. If all NGOs conform to the dominant “media logic” then they are all journalists and everybody’s story is newsworthy. And of course, by definition, then nobody’s is. This is a pluralism that succumbs to the rule of the market, where multiplicity merely translates into more of the same, albeit packaged in different ways and designed to attract the journalists’ attention — an attention that is increasingly preoccupied with market conditions.

Secondly, in the competitive environment of news sources, those with established positions of advantage and “bureaucratic affinity”16 are likely to retain a level of dominance. In the end, new media is just a different way to get the same stories out, and being able to get it out is still, on the whole, a privilege of the well-resourced.

Thirdly, rather than conveniently ignoring or maybe even welcoming news cloning, we need paid journalists in news organizations to expose the inadequacies and shortfalls of thoroughly mediated democracies if we are to retain a journalism that can be said to be for the public good and in the public interest.

Natalie Fenton is a Reader in Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communication, Goldsmiths, University of London, where she is also Co-Director of the Goldsmiths Media Research Programme: Spaces, Connections, Control, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Co-Director of Goldsmiths Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy. She is currently directing a large-scale research project on new media and the news, part of which involves an investigation of NGOs as news sources in a digital age. She has published widely on issues relating to media, politics, and new media, and is particularly interested in rethinking understandings of public culture, the public sphere and democracy. Her latest book, New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age (2009) (ed.) is published by Sage.

References

Allan, S., Adam, B. and Carter, C., eds. Environmental Risks and the Media. London: Routledge, 2000.

Altheide, D.L. and Snow, R.P. Media Logic. Beverly Hills, CA.: Sage, 1979.

Anderson, A. Media, Culture and the Environment. London: UCL Press, 1997.

Benkler, Y. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale: Yale University Press, 2006.

Davis, A. “Public Relations and News Sources.” In S. Cottle, ed., News, Public Relations and Power, 927-943. London: Sage, 2004.

Davis, A. “Comparing the influences and uses of new and old news media inside the parliamentary public sphere.” Paper presented at the Futures of the News symposium, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2007.
Fenton, N. “Mediating solidarity.” Global Media and Communication 4, No. 1 (2008a), 37-57.

Fenton, N. “Mediating hope: new media, politics and resistance.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 11, No. 2 (2008b), 230-248.

Klein, N. No Logo. New York: Flamingo, 2000.

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

Gaskin, K., Vlaeminke, M. and Fenton, N. Young People’s Attitudes to the Voluntary Sector. London: National Council for Voluntary Organizations, 1996.

Manning, P. Spinning for Labour: Trade Unions and the New Media Environment. Aldershot: Avebury, 1998.

Miller, D. and Williams, K. “Negotiating HIV/AIDS Information: Agendas, Media Strategies and the News.” In J. Eldridge, ed., Getting the Message: News, Truth and Power, 126-142. London: Routledge, 1993.

Norris, P. Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty and the Internet Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Norris, P. Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Putnam, R. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Rheingold, H. Smart Mobs: the Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2002.

Schlesinger, P. “Rethinking the Sociology of Journalism: Source Strategies and the Limits of Media-Centrism.” In: M. Ferguson, ed., Public Communication: The New Imperative, 61-83. London: Sage, 1990.

Tsaliki, L. “Online Forums and the Enlargement of the Public Space: Research findings from a European project.” The Public 9 (2002): 95–112.

Notes
  1. A more detailed discussion of this argument can be found in Natalie Fenton, ed. New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. London: Sage, 2009.
  2. Klein 2000, Norris 2002, Rheingold 2002
  3. These interviews formed part of a larger project on new media and the news in the Goldsmiths Media Research Centre: Spaces, Connections and Control, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. This involved more than 150 semi-structured interviews with a range of professionals from a cross section of news media stratified by type of media, geographic reach, professional roles, and commercial and public sector broadcasting. It also included a range of news sources including NGOs. The sample of NGOs drawn upon for this essay was stratified by purpose (both those whose main purpose was as service providers and those whose main purpose was acting as pressure groups); geography (whether local, national or international) and size (calculated on the basis of annual income), although it was by no means a fully representative sample. Interviewees included both general and senior managerial staff in departments/ units aligned with media relations/ publicity; but did not include those with prime responsibility for online communication (often of a technical persuasion) where these differed from those involved primarily in media relations.
  4. Davis 2004: 31
  5. Miller and Williams 1993, Anderson 1997, Manning 1998, Allan et al. 2000
  6. Schlesinger 1990
  7. Altheide and Snow 1979
  8. Davis 2004: 34
  9. For example, Putnam 2000 and Norris 2001.
  10. In the UK this translates into The Today programme on BBC Radio 4; the Press Association; BBC 1 evening news; The Guardian and The Times followed by the BBC website.
  11. Tsaliki 2002: 95
  12. Fenton 2008a, Fenton 2008b, Benkler 2006
  13. Fenton 2008b
  14. Davis 2007
  15. Gaskin et al. 1996
  16. Fishman 1980

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.

14:31

NGOs as newsmakers: A new series on the evolving news ecosystem

[Today we're beginning a series of essays here at the Lab dealing with an important set of players in contemporary journalism: non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. Its title: "NGOs and the News: Exploring a Changing Communication Landscape." Our friends at Penn's Center for Global Communication Studies explain below. —Josh]

The past decade has seen dramatic changes in the information and communication environment. Parameters as to who has access to information gathering and dissemination have altered rapidly and irreversibly. Civil society actors such as NGOs and advocacy networks are becoming increasingly significant players as the traditional news media model is threatened by shrinking audiences, the availability of free content online, and the declining fortunes of mainstream media. To what extent do NGOs take on functions as information intermediaries, working in cooperation with, or even in the stead of, traditional news organizations? Are we witnessing a general trend, or do NGOs fulfill specific purposes in times of crisis or critical events that focus attention on a specific (international) topic? And what are the consequences of this for the fields of advocacy and journalism?

This essay series, organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, in cooperation with the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, seeks to examine these critical questions from a variety of perspectives, and encourage discussion and deliberation on what these changes mean for NGOs, traditional media outlets, news consumers, and society as a whole. Each week, for the next three months, we will feature a new essay on the subject. These essays are the outcome of recent workshops that have explored various aspects of these developments.

NGOs as a supplement — or replacement?

One field of inquiry addresses the question of how NGO communication practices have changed over time. NGOs are, not surprisingly, adapting to — and to some extent taking advantage of — the changing information and communication environment. They are becoming increasingly involved in the gathering and delivery of international news, using a range of communication channels and technologies. In some cases, NGOs may form partnerships with mainstream media outlets. In others, NGOs act as their own news agencies, developing into their own media hubs or speaking to audiences and constituencies in a direct and unmoderated fashion.

There is also the broadening range of communication strategies employed by NGOs. How do different NGOs maneuver in today’s growing, but also increasingly crowded information spaces? An NGO’s size, mission, and resources influence how the organization thinks about, uses, and disseminates information. Traditional or so-called “legacy” NGOs must adapt to the new opportunities, negotiating and coexisting with new media and network-based NGOs such as Ushahidi or the Hub, for whom the current information ecology is a raison d’être.

New technologies and social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as more traditional media partnerships, offer NGOs a number of avenues, both old and new, for disseminating information. As advocacy organizations become more active in gathering and disseminating news, this raises a number of consequences, challenges, and ethical dilemmas. NGOs have their own agendas, and have not traditionally been expected to hew to the journalistic standard of objectivity. As they move into this arena, what consequences does this indicate for journalistic standards of objectivity and verification? And what repercussions does this shift have for NGOs’ communication strategies, branding efforts, and organizational integrity and credibility? These challenges are further exacerbated by the growing competition that NGOs face in the news space from bloggers and citizen journalists, among others, who also fill information spaces and develop news making capacity of their own.

An evolution of standards?

Finally, these developments have a significant impact on the traditional news makers: news media outlets, journalists, and editors. What happens when news making and journalistic functions are increasingly outsourced or claimed by other actors with no original training in this field and its editorial standards? How central are new media to the alterations and growing distortions of the traditional journalistic sphere and how, if at all, can they be harnessed?

The essays serve several aims. They speak directly to a community of practice consisting of NGO experts, journalists, and academics involved in this field of inquiry. They list and share best practices, suggestions, and warnings. And they map a new landscape of communication processes, which holds conceptual and methodological challenges for academic inquiry and research. The series is intended to inspire and encourage ongoing discussion among practitioners and researchers. We hope you will join us and contribute to a vivid and fruitful exchange.

Monroe Price is director of the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania and professor at the Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. Libby Morgan is senior research coordinator at the Center for Global Communication Studies. Kristina Klinkforth is a research fellow and PhD candidate with Freie Universität Berlin who recently completed an academic research year at the School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University.

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