Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

August 08 2012


College Media Year in Review: 9/11 Anniversary, Paterno, RGIII, Sex & Satire

As student journalists across the country gear up for another academic year, it's worth looking at the most impressive feats of the last year in college media.

Over the past academic year, student news teams put together a number of editions -- in advance and spur-of-the-moment on deadline -- geared toward remembering or highlighting major anniversaries, athletic achievements, campus icons, big events, and even s-e-x.

They appeared as full-blown print issues, pullout sections, digital-only PDFs, digital-print hybrids, and temporary special websites.

Below is a sampling of the most high-profile, controversial, editorially impressive, and aesthetically innovative 2011-2012 student press special editions. They are listed in order of their publication or posting, beginning last fall and stretching to late June.

9/11 10th Anniversary Issues

Near the start of fall semester, on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, many student newspapers published special editions or sections. The papers used the milestone as motivation for a look at how the country and their campuses have changed. They also provided glimpses into the lives of current students, who comprise what is being called the 9/11 Generation.




As Indiana Daily Student editor-in-chief MaryJane Slaby wrote to readers on the front page of the first of two related IDS special issues, "We are Generation 9/11. For the last 10 years, 9/11 has shaped our lives and the world around us. Most students on campus have lived half or more of their lives since that day in 2001 and barely remember life and world events before it."

Iowa State Daily Football Edition

Last November, the Iowa State University Cyclones staged a double-overtime, come-from-behind win against the then-undefeated, second-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys. The historic victory included a narrowly missed field goal, a batted-intercepted OT pass, a calm-cool-collected redshirt freshman QB, fans storming the field and singing "Sweet Caroline" -- and a special digital edition of The Iowa State Daily, ISU's student newspaper.


As the paper's editorial adviser, Mark Witherspoon, recounted in a post-game message on a popular college media advisers' list-serv, roughly 20 staffers gathered to create the seven-page PDF "football edition." As he wrote, "The game was over about 11:30, they filled the newsroom by midnight, and worked until at least 5 or 6 a.m. ... to get the special edition out. It's filled with wonderful photos, wonderful stories, an editorial eating crow on the sports guys' wrong predictions, photo blogs, and digital highlights of the game."

Daily O'Collegian Honor the Four Issue

Late last November, The Daily O'Collegian at Oklahoma State University responded to a sudden campus calamity with a touching 10-page special issue. Articles, a poem, and a photo tribute focused on various details and reactions to a plane crash that killed the head and assistant coach of the women's basketball team -- along with an OSU alumnus and his wife.


In the issue, the O'Colly also reported on the tragedy through the prism of a similar one that affected OSU a bit more than a decade ago: a plane crash that killed 10 members of the Cowboys community. The memorial rallying cry for that event: Remember the Ten. The commemorative declaration this time around: Honor the Four.

Daily Orange Fine Mess Edition

Over this past Thanksgiving break, Daily Orange staff at Syracuse University quickly pulled together a special edition focused on a sex abuse scandal involving its men's basketball second-in-command, Bernie Fine. The eight-page issue detailed the allegations, the circumstances surrounding Fine's sudden firing, student, player, and alumni reactions, and the inevitable comparisons to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University.


A front-page editor's note shared, "The Daily Orange publication calendar did not include a paper for the Monday after Fall Break, but because of the developing story about Bernie Fine ... the editors at the D.O. felt it was important to have one. No advertisements appear in the paper to focus on content."

Collegiate Times At a Loss Issue

In early December 2011, a midday shooting and campus lockdown at Virginia Tech University brought back memories of the horrific 2007 shootings that killed 33 people. During that episode, The Collegiate Times, VT's student newspaper, provided tireless, innovative coverage unmatched by the outside media hordes that descended upon Blacksburg, Va.

Nearly five years later, on a late-semester Thursday, the CT again stepped up. As rumors and reports circulated about a fatal shooting and a gunman on the loose, staff turned to Twitter to tell the world what they were seeing and hearing and the trusted information they were receiving. They also interacted in real-time with students and other observers.

Collegiate Times1.jpg

The next day, the paper published a much-lauded special print edition. As the edition's lead story confirmed, "Yet again, Tech is shaken. Two lives are lost. And although life will go on for Tech students all too soon, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the heartache this campus has endured. It is worth taking a moment to think about how we move forward."

Baylor Lariat Heisman Issue

Also in December, The Baylor Lariat, the student newspaper at Baylor University, produced a special "Heisman Issue" to commemorate the selection of Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III as the recipient of college football's highest honor.


The four-page edition included highlights from RGIII's historic season, reactions from Baylor students and alumni, and a glimpse at the Heisman voting results broken down by geographic region. As one of the three standout quotes featured prominently on the front page related, "This is a forever kind of moment."

Crimson White Championship Issue

In January, The Crimson White published a special 20-page edition to commemorate the University of Alabama's historic 14th national college football championship. The standout write-up in the issue: "Zero Hesitation," a rundown of how little outsiders had believed in the Tide a few months before the title run and how big the team played when the moment mattered.


As the piece began, "Zero. This word now has a special meaning for the Alabama Crimson Tide. Many believed the Tide had zero chance to make the BCS National Championship game after its loss to LSU on Nov. 5. Those same people pointed to the number of touchdowns scored between the two teams in their last meeting. However, when the clock struck zero, the only zero that mattered for the Tide was the one beside LSU on the scoreboard as the Tide shut out the Tigers 21-0."

Daily Collegian Paterno Edition

Near the start of spring semester, in the wake of Joe Paterno's death, The Daily Collegian published a special commemorative edition honoring the longtime Penn State head football coach. Related pieces touched on Paterno's upbringing and early coaching career, his devotion to family and charities, the reactions of his former players, and the scandal that overwhelmed his final days.


A number of the pieces were topped by quotes from Paterno. Among them: "If you don't want to be the best, then obviously you shouldn't be associated with Penn State football ... To live the good life, we have to make sure that others have at least a decent life ... With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

Pitt News Sex Issue

Timed for release on Valentine's Day, the fourth-annual sex issue by The Pitt News dove with gusto into body issues, birth control, pornography, celibacy, first dates, and, as one staffer excitedly proclaimed, "lady boobs!" The overall perspective, embodied by a line in a featured column: "Human sexuality is as diverse as human beings."


In a letter to readers, editor-in-chief Michael Macagnone wrote, "The horizontal tango, making love, doing the deed: There's no doubt our society has many means of talking about -- and around -- intercourse. And for most of the year, that is what society focuses on: the act itself, leaving the vast majority of its effects and implications unstated. Today though, with the naked intent of Valentine's Day in promoting Hallmark sales, last-minute flower purchases, and romantic gestures all around, we're going to talk about sex."

North by Northwestern Dance Marathon Site

The lone digital outlet on the list: North by Northwestern. In early March, in honor of Northwestern University's uber-popular Dance Marathon, a 30-hour philanthropy party, the online news magazine created a special site. Updated in real-time throughout the event, it featured photos, videos, blog posts, tweets, crowdsourced responses from the student dancers, haiku poetry, and a tracking of one student's heart rate while dancing and another student's calorie intake.


As outgoing NBN top editor Nolan Feeny said, "DM provides us with an opportunity to do what we do best. We are able to be there the whole weekend and find ways to tell stories that we couldn't necessarily do with a traditional news format. It also allows us to show off our personality and our voice. The Daily Northwestern is a great paper, but I don't think they would be asking Dance Marathon students whether they would rather have sex or a shower four times that day."

Daily Free Press April Fools' Issue

In early April, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Free Press at Boston University was forced to resign following the publication of a print-only April Fools' issue that received immense reader criticism.

Spoof stories in the issue, dubbed The Disney Free Press, discussed Cinderella's alleged involvement in a prostitution ring, BU frat brothers slipping Alice in Wonderland LSD, and the dwarfs from Snow White participating in a group rape of a female BU student.


Critics condemned the content for perpetuating a campus rape culture and mocking victims of sexual assault. BU has been especially attuned to such issues due to recent campus events, including a high-profile scandal involving sexual assault charges brought against a pair of university hockey players.

In a letter posted to the Free Press website soon after the issue premiered, the newspaper's board of directors wrote, "We cannot apologize sincerely enough to all those who were offended by the inexcusable editorial judgment exercised in Monday's annual print-only April Fools' Day issue of the Daily Free Press ... Considering the events of this semester and the increasingly vocal, constructive climate of conversation about sexual assault and many other important issues on campus, much of the content of Monday's issue was incredibly harmful, tasteless, and out of line."

Daily Cardinal Anniversary Issue

In April, The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison celebrated its 120th birthday with a resplendent special issue reflecting on its past and predicting its future. As the paper confirmed, "Since the 1890s, the Daily Cardinal has been a lens through which Wisconsin students have seen their world ... For the past 120 years, students have produced the Daily Cardinal through wars, protests, and tragedies."


Among the issue's highlights: a Q&A with an alum who edited the paper in the early 1940s (following an all-staff strike in the late 1930s over the firing of the executive editor for being Jewish); a full-page, two-story tribute to former staffer Anthony Shadid, who died earlier this year in Syria while reporting for The New York Times; and a piece from current executive editor Kayla Johnson headlined "The Next 120 Years."

Crimson White Tornado Reflection

In late April, a year after "one of the deadliest, costliest, and most widespread tornado outbreaks ever to hit the United States" struck Tuscaloosa, The Crimson White at the University of Alabama put together a comprehensive multi-platform news package reflecting on the storm's impact and the challenges CW staffers faced covering it.


The three-pronged effort: a temporary special homepage featuring content from a year before and the present, including 10 new web-only articles and a few multimedia projects; an ads-free commemorative print edition with more than 20 storm-focused features; and a 15-minute documentary video outlining the staffers' natural disaster reporting experience. The doc's title: "Harder Than We Thought."

The print edition included individual spotlights on how different communities are coping with the long-term aftermath; reports on how other areas hit by tornadoes in recent years are coping with their recoveries; and a story mentioning that pieces of an art professor's sculpture caught within the swirl of the tornado have been found as far away as Georgia.

University Press BOT Special Investigation

In May, The University Press at Florida Atlantic University unleashed a special issue that oozed investigative awesomeness and revealed some unsavory, ironic truths about those in power at the Palm Beach County public school.


The issue's aim: providing the down-low on the FAU Board of Trustees, the 13-member body that holds ultimate sway over the university's infrastructure, finances, and future. UP staffer Karla Bowsher unraveled "so many bankruptcy filings, foreclosures, liens, and lawsuits in our trustees' pasts that I needed another researcher [James Shackelford] to get through it all -- and an entire issue of the newspaper to cover it all."

Ubyssey Return Yearbook

Also in May, The Ubyssey at the University of British Columbia published a commemorative yearbook for 76 Japanese-Canadian students who were forced off campus and held as "enemy aliens" during World War II. It provides a fascinating history about both the school and the affected students.


Page after page after page features people whose lives were forever altered by a decision made during a moment of "frantic military mobilization." Timed to appear at a UBC ceremony presenting the former students -- living and deceased -- with honorary degrees, it was titled simply, "Return."

Daily Emerald Revolution Site

The web address: future.dailyemerald.com. The one-word header atop the homepage: Revolution. And the tagline just beneath it: "The Oregon Daily Emerald, reinvented for the digital age."

The student newspaper at the University of Oregon -- best known for its five-day-a-week print edition -- is morphing into a more wide-ranging, digital-first "modern college media company." On a special site that went live in late May, publisher Ryan Frank and top editors outlined a number of major new initiatives that will be rolled out in full force this fall.


Among them: a print issue that will appear twice per week, with new size, design, and content specs; the creation of an in-house tech startup and a separate marketing and event services team; and a ramp-up in "real-time news, community engagement, photo galleries, and videos on the web and social media."

As Frank shared in a MediaShift post soon after the site premiered, "We're about to close the book on the Oregon Daily Emerald. After 92 years, the University of Oregon's newspaper will end its run as a Monday-to-Friday operation in June. Yes, it's the end of an era, and we're sad about that. But it's also the start of a new era, the digital one."

Daily Collegian Sandusky Issues

In mid-June, a special issue of The Daily Collegian appeared on newsstands across PSU and State College, Pa., focused on the criminal trial of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Due to the reduced summer publishing schedule, Collegian staffers were not planning to put out a print edition until month's end.


In a note to readers, the paper's editor-in-chief, Casey McDermott, wrote, "Call me old-fashioned, sure -- but I stand by the idea that there are certain moments that deserve to be documented beyond narratives told in 140-character bursts or minute-by-minute updates alone. This is one of those moments ... Until now, our coverage of the Jerry Sandusky trial since the end of the spring semester has been online-only. This has its advantages ... [b]ut we also wanted to note the start of this trial -- an event that's been preceded by seven of the most pivotal months in university history -- in a way that could serve as an all-in-one reference as the trial unfolds."

Along with recounting various aspects of Sandusky's first day in court, the issue featured a rundown of the main prosecution and defense arguments, individual glimpses at all the trial participants, a timeline of events, and pieces on the courtroom's social media ban and the withholding of the identities of some of the alleged Sandusky victims who testified.

Soon after, at the trial's conclusion, the paper published a separate special issue documenting the story behind -- and the implications surrounding -- the guilty verdict. In its front-page summation, the paper rightly hinted that the story is still undoubtedly far from over. As the piece stated, "Seven months since the first arrest, eight days of testimony, 10 stories of abuse, 21 hours of deliberation, and one verdict. What's next?"


Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His textbook Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age is due out in early 2013 by Routledge.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

December 01 2011


Amit Singhal: 9/11 led to the birth of Google News

Amit Singhal tells the story of how the idea of Google News was born: “When September 11th happened, we as Google were failing our users. Our users were searching for ‘New York Twin Towers,’ and our results had nothing relevant, nothing related to the sad events of the day. ..."

Watch the video on YouTube www.youtube.com

July 14 2011


Associated Press - FBI is investigating News Corp. (New York)

I wouldn't post the following without this little sentence, at the end of the second paragraph, which grasped my attention. Tom Hays, AP, says "New York City-based News Corp. has been in crisis mode." That said, unfortunately Hays leaves us readers alone. What follows is a stringing together of facts. What does "crisis mode" mean?

Associated Press :: The FBI has opened an investigation into allegations that media mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. sought to hack into the phones of Sept. 11 victims, a law enforcement official said Thursday.

The official spoke Thursday to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. New York City-based News Corp. has been in crisis mode.

Continue to read Tom Hays, www.msnbc.msn.com

July 13 2011


Zero hour - Timothy Garton Ash: a new settlement between politics, media and law must emerge

Guardian :: Britain's drama has penetrated the carapace of American self-preoccupation. Legendary reporter Carl Bernstein compares it to Watergate. On morning television, Hugh Grant appeals to Americans to wake up to Rupert Murdoch's pernicious influence on their own media. Business reporters track the impact on News Corp shares. Senator John Rockefeller calls for an inquiry into whether Americans' phones were hacked. If it turns out that 9/11 victims were targeted, as suggested by the campaigning MP Tom Watson in prime minister's questions, then this will no longer be just a foreign story.

But what does it all mean?

[Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian:] From the putrid quagmire of the hacking scandal must emerge a new settlement between politics, media and the law

Continue to read Timothy Garton Ash, www.guardian.co.uk

January 19 2010


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.

  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.
Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.
Get rid of the ads (sfw)

Don't be the product, buy the product!