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May 12 2010


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


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 24 2010


Michael Freund of Der Standard on the state of Austrian media, point of view, and government subsidies

It’s hard to imagine, but in other parts of the world, the newspaper industry isn’t in quite the same tailspin we see in America. One reason many European outlets have faired better than those in the U.S. during the age of the Internet, and now an economic crisis, is a business model less dependent on advertising. European newspapers charge higher newsstand and subscription rates and readers embrace a long-standing tradition of supporting their media through direct government subsidies.

While I was in Austria last week attending the Milton Wolf Seminar on NGOs and the future of news, I spoke with Michael Freund, a writer and editor at Der Standard, a major Austrian daily, about the state of the country’s media and how readers think about government subsidy of the news. Freund explained that while there are some legitimate questions about independence, in general, Austrians believe that news should be protected from completely commercial interests. It’s a different mindset.

The question of whether the U.S. government should bailout the newspaper industry has been controversial. The idea, at first, feels like it runs against a basic tenant of independence (even though the U.S. media has long enjoyed indirect, but significant subsidies that buoyed the industry for years). As the media landscape worsens, it’s a question that will certainly linger.

A transcript of the video is below.

Michael Freund: Hi, my name is Michael Freund, or Michael, I’m head of the Media Department at Webster University, Vienna and I’m also editor and writer at the Viennese daily paper Der Standard, where I write about culture and the arts and occasional book reviews.

I was asked to say a few words about the Austrian media industry and what it’s like — whether its dying or not, so let me try. Let me start by saying that Austria is, as you probably know, a small country in the center of Europe. It’s a Western country — it has had a Western-style press, electronic and print press, since World War II with a couple notable differences from what you know, possibly, in America.

For one thing, the television, the radio, the electronic media, the broadcasting has been not state-controlled, but state-sponsored and state-instituted — and still is, but it had been a monopoly, until, I don’t know exactly, about ten years ago. Until it became untenable because the other media transpired through the borders: Private TV came through cable, it came thru the air, it came through satellite, so it was not really a feasible position to assume Austria had only one broadcasting company, which it had until about the ’80s, until through the other channels that I said, the media came through.

The other interesting thing is that Austria has had, for many decades, a very strong partyline press — meaning there were newspapers that belonged to or were literally owned by or influenced by political parties, official organs of those parties, and they all vanished. As daily papers, they don’t exist anymore, as weeklies they don’t exist anymore, and instead, you might say a commercially oriented print media scene has taken place — which, of course is not without its own pressures and interests, both commercial and political.

Laura McGann: Do those newspapers — do they have a point of view that were adopted from the politically sponsored publications of the past or would you consider them more independent?

Freund: I wouldn’t say they were adopted, or direct successors. But, of course they have a point of view. You cannot not have a point of view. Everybody has a point of view, including all publishers and editors. So, yes, there are some media that are considered more liberal, others are considered more conservative. Some lean toward the Social Democrats, others toward Christian Democrats or the Green Party — yeah, right wing press as well, you have those. So there are pressures, there are leanings, but they are not officially affiliated or tied to parties.

McGann: Has that helped — or could you talk about how print media has faired in the rise of the Internet in Austria?

Freund: It has fared not so well, like in most other countries. I should say for one thing, it was the first one in any of the German-language countries, meaning Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, to go online, and it was in the mid ’90s. I think it was ‘95. And it has had since then, a fairly strong, predominant effect — Internet presence. As far as I know it’s making money, but not a whole lot of money, and that’s true for many other publications. Newspapers, as far as I know, as much as in the States, have not found a way to really monetize the Internet in a totally profitable manner. So, yes they break even, but they may even make money with the banner ads or their cheap operations, or they associate with others to save costs. But, people are looking for ways to find — trying to find the solution to break even, not to lose on both the print and electronic side. As a matter of fact, in a few weeks, the iPad will be commercially introduced in the U.S., not yet in Austria, and there is hope that with a intelligent model that iTunes provided for the music scene, there may be some way to get people to pay moderately for content they really want, meaning from sources they trust, rather than just some blogs or individual sources where you don’t really know where the stuff comes from and its not fact-checked and it’s not edited. I think people who are interested in reading something at the level of, say, The New York Times might be willing to pay for it. So far they haven’t, but things may change.

McGann: What is the attitude among the media-consuming public in Austria toward government subsidies for the media?

Freund: Well, for one thing, Austrian Radio Television, the one called ORF, the Austrian publicly sponsorsed electronic media, is state-sponsored and people have accepted it as a fact because it’s always been like that. It doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable, but by and large, Austrians, as many other Europeans, see some sense in making sure that certain media don’t die or don’t fall completely into the hands of extremists who are purely commercially interested people. So, the BBC, for example, has for many decades a state-subsidized, state-sponsored institution — and it is an institution. It’s not a coincidence that some of the best American programming makes use of BBC stuff, including National Public Radio, including PBS, their TV shows, their radio news, those things. They come from something which, unfortunately, to a lot of Americans smells like socialism or something horrible and worse, communism, you know, but it’s just a way to make sure a certain plurality — not plurality, but quality, of fact-finding, of accurate reporting gets a chance.

McGann: What about fear that coverage of government will be manipulated in some way?

Freund: The fear is there. And it’s sometimes not unjustified. The government tries to intervene, people call up, they talk — nothing is documented — everyone knows, but no one can really prove it. There are all kinds of attempts to land your people into this editing room and that desk, that happens. But look, that happens in commercial stations as well — there may be other interests. How many very critical reports of let’s say, the tobacco industry have you found in American magazines whose advertising depends heavily on the tobacco industry? Just a question.

March 22 2010


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 19 2010


NGOs as newsmakers: Russian-Georgian conflict edition

VIENNA — In August 2008, two wars unfolded in South Ossetia. Georgian newspapers and television stations reported an aggressive, unprovoked Russian invasion of their country. Russians, meanwhile, watched images and read tales of Georgian troops committing genocide.

For a brief period, Georgians could flip between TV stations to watch both versions. Soon, access to the Russian media ended. (Russians could not access Georgian TV and few Russians would be able to read Georgian print media.)

Margarita Akhvlediani, a longtime war correspondent and editor in chief of Go Group/Eyewitness Studio, studied the coordinated PR campaign by Georgia, the ensuing media coverage of the conflict by both Georgian and Russian media, and the role of NGOs in the information cycle. She presented some of her findings and related research at the Milton Wolf Seminar on the future of news and NGOs here in Vienna this morning. Her conclusion: International NGOs are critical to the dissemination of information in war and crisis zones.

Akhvlediani described a tale that came to symbolize the conflict for many Russians. According to the war story, dozens of Georgian villagers, seeking safety in a local church, died when Georgian soldiers burned the church to the ground. Human Rights Watch looked into the story, spending three months traveling to villages throughout the region looking for the church. Eventually, Human Rights Watch concluded: “…numerous Ossetian villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in [the] village said they never heard about, let alone witnessed, such an incident.”

Akhvlediani argues that this independent research serves as an important fact check on one-sided reporting happening by both sides of the conflict. Local NGOs, Akhvlediani explained, found themselves in a similar situation as local media — unwilling or unable to report a rounded look at the conflict, instead presenting a single point of view.

Western media, which parachuted in to cover the conflict, by and large provided a biased take, too, especially at the start of the conflict, according to fellow panelist Andrei Zolotov, editor-in-chief of Russia Profile (and a former Nieman Fellow). Many journalists seemed happy to latch onto the underdog narrative the Georgia government had pushed, he said. (Two dozen press releases went out in the first few days of the conflict, seeking to shore up Western support for Georgia). “It’s a very easy story to sell,” Zolotov said.

The work of Human Rights Watch, which took three months, is an unlikely project for any outlet, even the best-off newspapers. It’s an example of an ongoing theme we’ve covered this week: How can NGOs be newsmakers?

March 18 2010


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


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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