The case for NGO news

Kat Borlongan is one of the seven 2013 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar.  Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2013 Seminar discussions.

The 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar discussed the role of journalists and diplomats in constructing the narratives surrounding major geo-political events (i.e. pivots).  During the discussions, professional journalism was often associated with, and at times even equated to, objectivity. Invoked conventionally within the newsroom, objectivity can be defined as “a faith in ‘facts,’ a distrust of ‘values,’ and a commitment to their segregation.[1]” Within the purview of “witnessing,” the image of the bystander most closely approaches this definition of objectivity. Cohen[2] talks about the bystander as “a person who is present at an incident but does not take part.” This notion of bystander-as-objective-witness hinges on the idea of neutrality and non-involvement, even what might be seen as passivity or impotence – hence the synonym “onlooker.”

An NGO, by this definition, is not objective bystander because its very presence at a conflict or calamity site is borne out of an intention to assist or intervene. For this reason, critiques have emerged about NGOs and their lack of journalistic neutrality and objectivity. One common critique, for instance, contends that NGOs and their open pursuit of certain goals and values cannot guarantee objectivity. The growing influence of NGOs has generated further critiques with regard to the nature of their funding and its impact on their autonomy in newsmaking practice. Reimann[3] goes so far as to say that funding from government aid agencies, multilateral donors, and private foundations have turned NGOs into mere subcontractors or policy instruments for their benefactors.

If we hold fast to the idea that objectivity is an indispensable criterion for newsmaking and that professional journalists are, in fact, neutral bystanders, then it follows that NGOs cannot be considered true newsmakers. Yet two questions must be addressed before making this conclusion: To what extent do media organizations satisfy the objectivity criterion? And, why should we be so ready to assume that the ideal of objectivity is universally absolute and, consequently, dismiss NGO news?

* * *

To address the first question, I draw on media studies literature that details the way current modalities of news production are imbued with ideologies, calling into question the standard of absolute objectivity in professional journalism. It seems absurd to assume that such a standard of objectivity ought to be applied to NGO newsmaking practices when news organizations themselves do not faithfully adhere to this standard.

A number of scholars[4] believe that the media play a pivotal role in transmitting the symbolic and economic values underlying the ideology of dominant groups. Similar to NGOs, media institutions are subject to high levels of instrumentalism, both for commercial and political interests. Questioned about the Democratic Voice of Burma’s (DVB) agenda during an anonymous interview, for example, one of the DVB’s reporters made an insightful comment in this regard:

“Yes, in a way, we are trying to achieve a regime change. But this is not our main goal. It most important for us is to educate the populace, provide information about democracy and rights. All media corporations have an agenda: Al Jazeera, BBC, Fox. This is something we can also have.”

Indeed, media institutions are in many instances part of large conglomerates organized to pursue strategies designed to enhance profit, contain costs, and reduce risks. One of the most well-known examples of this is media baron Rupert Murdoch’s well-documented proprietal intervention across News Corporation to “pursue his own interests, willing to sacrifice ethical, political and journalistic standards for profit”.[5]

With regards to the second question about objectivity being a universal yardstick for journalism, there is an argument that objectivity is a strategically employed construct and that it is relatively dispensable. To begin with, the very foundations of the concept of objectivity are already quite rocky; it implies the following:

“[T]hat there is indeed a world “out there” and that an account of a given event reflects that world, or a piece of it, with some degree of accuracy. The “objective assumption” states not only that the media are objective, but that there is a world out there to be objective about.[6]”

Several scholars argue that in making claims of journalistic objectivity on behalf of the media, there is a failure to consider newsmaking practices such as news story selection, treatment, context and display – activities require the interpretation of public events by journalists serving as decision-makers.[7]

Moreover, objectivity appears to have become a tool for creating a jurisdiction for professional journalists. Drawing on Abbott’s understanding of a profession’s jurisdiction as the area of expertise and set of problems each profession claims and protects, it seems that journalism’s stake on the authority to produce witness-based news serves to draw boundary lines between those on the “inside” and those on the “outside” of the profession[8]. This creates a distinction that sets apart journalists as a group with claims to a unique professional knowledge that makes them trustworthy in the eyes of the public. Part of this claim involves asserting themselves as necessary intermediaries between NGOs and the public, thereby discarding NGOs as unauthorized media witnesses. Ashuri and Pinchevski characterize witnessing as a “game of trust”[9] in which agents scramble to gain the trust of their publics. Before one can participate in this game however, s/he must first be admitted into the field, or arguably, the genre of newsmaking. “[T]here will always be those who à priori remain — or are kept — outside the field, those who are barred from entering.” To this, they later add that being excluded from the game of witnessing, implies being relegated to silence.

In sum, there is no field of pure or independent journalism that NGO newsmaking risks contaminating; news organizations themselves are unable to truly adhere to the standard of objectivity they lay claims to as the distinguishing characteristic of professional journalism. Furthermore, whether or not NGOs are deemed as worthy successors of legacy media reporting in disaster and conflict zones, it seems that they are here to stay in order to fill the void that the decline of the witness-based foreign journalist has left behind.

The commercial model for international reporting is broken, resulting in a steep decline in witness-based reporting from disaster and conflict zones, especially in legacy newspapers and network news programs[10]. Conflict and disaster reporting, with its astronomical costs, has been at the forefront of budget cuts necessitated by economic pressures. As Andrew Currah underscores, “no matter how powerful the philanthropic spirit or quest for power, the practical costs of journalism demand a robust economic model (which is looking increasingly unstable in the present context)”[11].

One of the meager compromises to a fully-operational foreign news bureau is the parn a major international story breaks, news organizations will often splurge on parachute journalism, sending their own journalists into an area to report on a story that he/she has little knowledge or experience of. More often than not, however, the situation is direr when no journalists are sent at all. As a result, some of the most pressing crises receive little to no news coverage. Human Rights Watch (HRW), a global NGO, has critiqued the “commercial yardstick” used by these newsmakers to measure the newsworthiness of crises that they do not have resources to cover. Moeller observes that this practice “ is what attracts an audience–an audience that can be delivered to advertisers . . . Media institutions do not have any inherent business instincts to cover even major disasters beyond the initial cataclysm”[12]. She further explains that journalists often neglect ongoing emergencies such as wars or famines—no matter how urgent—due to the massive logistical complexities involved in covering them, but also because stories of chronic tragedy in distant places are simply less appealing to their audiences.

Dwindling to non-existent media coverage has prompted many frustrated NGOs to cross the exclusionary boundaries established by conventional journalism organizations such as The Guardian or CNN, in order to play a role in providing news as well. While these NGOs differ greatly in many respects from professional newsmakers, “they can rightly claim to cover the world in a more systematic way than do most broadcasters and newspapers”[13]. Whereas foreign news bureaus are closing one by one, many NGOs are logistically capable of “being there”, and also being better equipped than most news organizations to gather information and testimony in places where few journalists go.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) invests heavily in pre-mission exploratory onsite research, gathering in-depth information on security-related but also political and cultural dimensions of their site of intervention. The organization also operates independently from local authorities by using their own communication equipment, transportation, housing structures, and even power sources. Moreover, MSF benefits from the support of experts such as communication officers, emergency coordinators, and security logisticians that are key to obtaining information in high-risk areas where MSF and allied NGOs are the only actors left.

It seems that foreign correspondence from disaster and conflict zones is no longer the bounded generic practice it once used to be; nor is it the protected zone or professional province of traditional news organizations.

***

Jeff Jarvis, in the 2011 documentary Page One, makes the following statement: “The old newspaper model is dying. News is not dying.” As we have seen, despite apocalyptic forecasts, this is also the case with regard to conflict zone reporting thanks in part to the emergence of NGO news. In his paper on the future of foreign correspondence, Sambrook[14] concludes that “Whatever the economics of international news, the [responsibility to bear witness] is something which all news organizations must strive to preserve”. It would seem, then, that what we have on our hands is, in fact, a survival story. Witnessing has indeed been preserved, albeit through less conventional newsmakers: NGOs. In the process of this transition, the generic practice of witnessing has been actively repurposed so as not to depict a world “as it is”, as journalists are expected to do, but to help construct the world as NGOs believe it ought to be.

About the Author

katKat Borlongan is an open data enthusiast with many different hats. Currently, she is the co-founder of the Paris-based open data agency Five by Five and the French chapter of the Open Knowledge Foundation. She also serves as an advisor to the French government as a member of its open data expert network. Prior to this, she worked as a public affairs consultant to the International Civil Aviation Organization and as the Country Director of Reporters Sans Frontières’ Canadian bureau.

As a merit scholar of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kat completed her undergraduate degree in Political Science at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Bordeaux. She also holds a master’s degree in Communication Studies from McGill University.

About the Milton Wolf Seminar

Co-hosted by the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation, and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, the annual Milton Wolf Seminar tackles contemporary issues at the nexus of diplomacy and journalism – both broadly defined.  The 2013 Seminar, “Diplomatic Maneuvers and Journalistic Coverage in a Time of Reset, Pivot and Rebalance” explored the critical role of diplomats and journalists in shaping the outcomes of what we call global geopolitical pivots. Pivots in this case refer to emergent geopolitical shifts around which multiple stakeholders – from major powers, to multilateral organizations, to bloggers working in isolation – seek to provide input on the most appropriate outcomes. Examples of contemporary global pivots considered at the 2013 Seminar included: the ultimate resolution of the Arab Spring countries, the shifts in geopolitical approaches to Syria, calls for regime change in Iran, and the intense Western attention to reform movements and government change in Burma (Myanmar). A diverse range of academics, policy makers, and diplomats participated in the two days of presentations and discussions.  A full list of panelists is available here.

For more information about past and upcoming Milton Wolf Seminars and future Emerging Scholar initiatives, please contact: Amelia Arsenault.

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[1] Schudson, Michael. (1978). Discovering the News: A social history of American newspapers. New York: Basic Books.

[2] Cohen, S. (2001). States of denial: Knowing about atrocities and suffering. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[3] Reimann, Kim D. (2005). Up to no good? Recent critics and critiques of NGOs. In Olivier P. Richmond and Henry F. Carey (Eds.), Subcontracting Peace: The Challenge of NGO Peace-Building (pp.37-53). Aldershot: Ashgate.

[4] Croteau, D., & Hoynes, W. (2001). The business of media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

[5] Hardy, J. (2010). Cross-media promotion. New York: Peter Lang.

[6] Molotch, H., & Lester, M. (1974). News as purposive behavior: On the strategic use of routine events, accidents, and scandals. American Sociological Review, 39(1), 101–112.

[7] Chaney, D. (1977). Fictions in mass entertainment. In J. Curran, M. Gurevitch, & J. Woollacott (Eds.), Mass communication and society (pp. 440–457). London: Edward Arnold.

[8] Abbott, A. D. (1988). The system of professions: An essay on the division of expert labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[9] Ashuri, T., & Pinchevski, A. (2009). Witnessing as a field. In P. Frosh, & A. Pinchevski (Eds.), Media witnessing: Testimony in the age of mass communication (pp. 133–157). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[10] Riffe, D., & Budianto, A. (2001). The shrinking world of network news. International Communication Bulletin, 36, 12–35.

[11] see Sambrook, R. (2010). Are foreign correspondents redundant?: The changing face of international news. Oxford, UK: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[12] Moeller, S. D. (2008). Media and democracy. In M. Boler (Ed.), Digital media and democracy: Tactics in hard times (pp. 167–196). Cambridge: MIT Press.

[13] Owen, J., & Purdey, H. (Eds.). (2009). International news reporting: Frontlines and deadlines. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

[14] Sambrook, R. (2010). Are foreign correspondents redundant?: The changing face of international news. Oxford, UK: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

 

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