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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.

March 17 2010

14:00

The Milton Wolf Seminar: NGOs, media, and diplomacy

For the next couple days, I’ll be attending a seminar on how changes in the media landscape are affecting diplomacy. The event, the Milton Wolf Seminar, will include a series of panels and discussions with leaders at international NGOs, journalists, and members of the diplomatic community — a group I’m excited to meet and interview and whose thoughts I’ll be sharing with you here.

The seminar is put on by the American Austria Foundation, the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna and the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, which is sponsoring my trip.

The seminar builds on themes from the series we ran here at the Lab, in partnership with Annenberg, on the changing role of international NGOs in the media ecosystem, with newspapers and TV cutting foreign bureaus and coverage abroad. As the introductory post asked:

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?

One session at the conference will address that issue directly, looking at how large NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Medecins sans Frontieres are using social media to produce and spread an incredible amount of their own content. One of the panelists, Simon Cottle of the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies wrote an essay in our series on how NGOs bend to the needs of new organizations in the battle for coverage:

NGOs have become increasingly embroiled within a “media logic” that is far removed from the ideals and aims of humanitarianism. This is demonstrated in how aid NGOs seek to “brand” their organizations in the media in response to an increasingly crowded, competitive and media-hungry field; how they pitch and package stories in ways designed to appeal to known media interests, deploying celebrity and publicity events; how they regionalize and personalize media coverage of humanitarian work in the field, marginalizing if not occluding local relief efforts and the role of survivors; and also how they expend valuable time, resources and energy to safeguard their organizational reputations and credibility against the risks of media-led scandals.

It should be an interesting couple of days — keep reading.

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