NGOs and the News: A Matter of Definition

Harvard is teaming up with Pennsylvania State to deliver a series on the future of journalism given the increasing role of NGOs in producing news. Can NGOs fill in for ever-shrinking foreign correspondence budgets? Should they be allowed to? When NGOs play by the media's rules, sexing up and dumbing down their observations to accommodate the general reader, do they compromise their primary mission of advocating for change?

One immediate observation is that the series, available at the Nieman Journalism Lab, does not attempt to define what an NGO is. As comments on the series correctly point out, national news programs like ABC and NBC are NGOs themselves, confusing the question about whether NGOs should be in the role of producing news.

The first article in the series says NGO participation in news production is a hand's down success. The NGOs discussed are ones specifically meant for the independent reporting of news such as the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the International Reporting Project. Both organizations award grants for overseas reporting to capital-J Journalists.

The second article takes a more critical view because it discusses more commonly thought of NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam.

In a clear case of Orwellian newspeak, the authors refer to the media's love of sensational journalism and celebrity as "media logic" and then criticize humanitarian NGOs for obeying it.

Celebrity means both Hollywood and Nike to NGOs. If an unsavory issue like female genital mutilation is to be discussed, a movie star like Kate Blanchet can better sell the story to media organizations. And to get media attention in the first place, NGOs must cultivate a brand, the Red Cross being the humanitarian equivalent of the Nike Swoosh.

When I covered the U.N. Climate Change Convention in Barcelona, the floor of the convention center looked like a business convention. Each NGO had its own booth with literature to promote its message; Oxfam stood outside the press conference room with its own press releases getting its message directly into the media's hands.

The series on NGOs and the News will continue for three months, with one new article each week.

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