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Nov. 9, 2009, 10:30 a.m.

Kimberly Abbott: Working together, NGOs and journalists can create stronger international reporting

[This is the first essay in our series examining the evolving relationship between NGOs and journalism, produced with Penn's Center for Global Communication Studies. Kimberly Abbott of the International Crisis Group leads off by exploring the pros and cons of established news organizations relying on NGOs for help in their reporting. We're collecting the entire series here. —Josh]

In 2005, before Ted Koppel left ABC’s Nightline, a highly respected American news program with a long commitment to international stories, he opened one of his signature broadcasts with a simple disclaimer: the story the audience was about to see was produced in partnership with a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO), the International Crisis Group. Said Koppel:

This is not how we normally cover the news. But consider it a case of coordinating interests…Nightline has had a long-standing interest in Africa over the years. But there are hundreds of stories like this across the continent. Where do you start? Also, the expense of sending a crew, producer and correspondent can be prohibitive. But [actor Don] Cheadle and a video crew were already in Kampala [Uganda]. And Nightline producer Rick Wilkinson had worked with Cheadle in Sudan. Cheadle wanted his wife and daughters to get a sense of the kind of suffering that is so widespread in Africa. The International Crisis Group wanted publicity for what is happening in Uganda. And we, to put it bluntly, get to bring you a riveting story at a greatly reduced expense. [August 23, 2005]

The following year, Nightline and Crisis Group teamed up on another project, this time in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Correspondent Jim Wooten and Crisis Group analyst Jason Stearns revisited the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, attempting to track down some of the perpetrators of killings. While Nightline had covered the genocide a decade earlier, like most American networks, it had not closely followed the developments in the region since, and did not have the contacts or the background to update the story with the nuance and depth it required. International Crisis Group, on the other hand, had analysts living in the region who spoke the local language, knew the terrain, and were well-connected. While Nightline maintained full editorial control over the story, Crisis Group helped shape it with analysis, depth and context, and the two shared the cost of the production.

At a time when mainstream media face financial constraints, the quality of foreign news coverage is suffering. This essay contends that Nightline‘s collaboration with Crisis Group could serve as a model for the future. These projects were ahead of the curve for both the media and NGO worlds. Both stories were reminiscent of days when foreign news bureaus were widespread and staffed with reporters who based themselves in the field, knew the local environment, and could devote energies to investigating stories. And the pieces were win-win for everyone involved: Nightline got stories nobody else had; Crisis Group got a platform on which to discuss ongoing regional conflicts. The partnership worked well for two reasons: first, because Crisis Group enjoys a reputation as a credible, independent organization, and second, but equally important, because Nightline was clear with the audience about what was happening. As news organizations continue to cut budgets for foreign reporting, partnerships like this can ensure that the mainstream media deliver solid, comprehensive, and richly detailed foreign news stories to an under-served American audience.

The truth is, versions of such partnerships are happening now in print and broadcast newsrooms across the country, though many are reluctant to discuss them too openly. NGO-media partnerships raise significant and wide-ranging issues — from editorial integrity to security — that this paper addresses by examining the personal experiences of journalists and NGO staff. Their perspectives, gathered through interviews with the author between July 2008 and January 2009, shed new light on the growing trend, and on the potential it has to enhance the work of all those involved.

The state of the news

It’s no secret that with news-gathering budgets shrinking fast, it is becoming more difficult for major news outlets to independently cover international stories. The result is a homogenization of foreign news that often lacks depth and context, and is increasingly limited to coverage of the major wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — where American blood and dollars are heavily invested. Yet while producers and editors blame an American public allegedly disinterested in foreign coverage, recent polling suggests that this isn’t the case. In a 2006-2007 poll conducted by the BBC, two-thirds of Americans believed it is extremely or very important to have access to international news. Half of those polled rated American coverage of international stories as poor or fair, lamenting that stories are “sensationalist,” “superficial,” and “narrow.” Indeed, rather than a lack of interest from the American public, the real issue is that the news media haven’t made foreign news relevant enough to their American audience.

Editors have a responsibility to encourage interest in foreign news and to write stories that explain and contextualize global challenges. Rating wars and budgets do not exonerate journalists from the responsibility — and privilege — to inform. If the fourth estate is to maintain its relevance as a watchdog, it must fulfill its obligation to cover foreign news. Creative use of available resources, coupled with bold new thinking about how to apply them, could lead to better reporting that answers the call for both journalists and the public.

An emerging trend: NGO–media partnerships

If NGO-media partnerships are not yet happening formally and openly, they certainly are happening — to varying degrees — on the ground. Both field-based NGOs and journalists observe the media’s increasing reliance on NGOs, including humanitarian, human rights, and advocacy groups. As Steve Roberts, media ethics professor at George Washington University and former New York Times reporter, notes, “the spheres are overlapping more and more.”

Mainstream media and NGOs have long had a symbiotic relationship, with the media using NGO experts for news tips, quotes, and access. Now, with many foreign bureaus of major news outlets shuttered, and the simultaneous growth of more media savvy NGOs, the agencies are doing even more: researching and pitching stories, sharing contacts, developing content and providing logistics, guidance, analysis, opinion and, in some cases, funding. Put simply, without the help of these groups, many foreign news stories would not be told at all. It is a natural evolution of an already strong relationship. However, a slight, but fundamental, shift is underway in which NGOs are taking on more and more functions of news media in their capacity to gather and manage foreign news. While they certainly don’t have the mission or means to provide daily news coverage or replace that function for the media, they can and are helping to address the foreign news gap. This cross-pollination seems more logical in the field, as the number of people bearing witness to foreign stories shrinks.

CBS producer Max McClellan has traveled the globe with international correspondent Lara Logan. He thinks NGO-media partnerships are “hugely valuable relationships that can work well for both sides.” Said McClellan, NGOs provide “a way in that you can’t find elsewhere. You have fixers in some of these places, but they are more logistical. NGOs are editorial. Their people are smart on the issue and know the stories in terms of that ground truth.” McClellan describes a trip to Darfur he produced with the help of the International Rescue Committee: “We got a sense of what was happening through them and we were brought to the crux of the story. They knew their way around. We couldn’t have done it without them.” McClellan’s experience is not unique. Indeed, in many cases help from NGOs has become the determining factor in whether a story is assigned.

Former ABC News producer Dan Green agrees that in past years NGOs were always helpful, but today they are essential because stretched journalists simply don’t have time to do groundwork — finding experts, lining up interviews, researching characters — before parachuting into a foreign country. “Today the question is: will I do the story if I don’t have someone or some group on the ground who will help me get it done?”

Humanitarian staff feel the impact as well. Kate Conradt, a roving communications officer for the humanitarian group Save the Children, has seen firsthand that journalists are relying more heavily on aid organizations, especially in emergency situations. “We saw it in Bangladesh, where nobody is based…we had the boats, we had the trucks.” And they are filling in editorial as well as logistical gaps, she says. “In Burma…they couldn’t get visas, so we were their eyes and ears on the ground.” Margaret Aguirre, a former journalist who is now a global communications advisor for International Medical Corps, has had similar experiences. “Myanmar was an example where all the aid groups had their doors pounded on. We turned down a dozen requests by journalists to go in with us,” she said.

Refugees International, an advocacy organization, has helped journalists navigate refugee situations in Somalia, Burma, Sudan and other conflict areas. Press officer Vanessa Parra has orchestrated some of the trips, and says she has seen an increased willingness — and need — for reporters to access international stories on the shoulders of organizations like hers. “In the past there was an implied understanding that [news organizations] were having economic troubles, but [today] it has been made very clear to me that things are shifting,” she says. The group has been approached by journalists not only to help them with story ideas, but to help subsidize their trips, or simply author stories for them. She points out that while such stories do note the author’s affiliation, they are appearing more often throughout the publication, rather than just on opinion pages.

Freelance reporter Michael Kavanagh, whose work from Congo has been featured on NPR and BBC, has also witnessed the trend of NGOs filling in for journalists. For instance, when the elections in Eastern Congo were carried out relatively peacefully, his editors pulled him off of the story, instead instructing him to “just leave the [phone] numbers for key NGO [staff], and if we needed something we would get it from them.”

In addition to the long-standing practices of using relief groups to hitch rides to a crisis spot, to access refugee camps, or to provide details about an emergency, enterprising journalists are increasingly tapping into opportunities provided by foundations, fellowships and grants to support research travel. While not all news organizations support the practice, and many today won’t guarantee employment for returning reporters, those that do have benefited from no-strings-attached international coverage on another organization’s dime. Former Boston Globe reporter Charles Sennott, who spent a decade reporting from Jerusalem and London, returned home to find that the paper was investing more in local stories. Sennott looked for other funding sources to get him out of the newsroom and was awarded a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to travel to Afghanistan. The arrangement required him to report for the Foundation’s Carnegie Reporter, but also allowed him to file stories for The Boston Globe. “My editor [justified] it by looking the other way. He didn’t embrace it and didn’t reject it,” Sennott says. Indeed, in recent months foundations have seen spikes in applications from both staff reporters and freelancers, many of whom are causalities of the industry’s growing pains looking to keep their bylines current. In April the International Reporting Project — an organization that provides opportunities for journalists to travel overseas and report on critical issues not covered in mainstream media — saw an 80 percent increase in its applications.

Tom Peter, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor who has covered Iraq, Somalia, and the West Bank, is one journalist who has benefitted from such programs. Peter is dismayed by the number of international journalists forced to practice “telephone journalism” in lieu of getting out to the field. He has applied for reporting grants through the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, a nonprofit organization launched in 2006 that supports independent international journalism.

Pulitzer Center Director Jon Sawyer says in the beginning, news organizations were skeptical about using the work of the journalists he was funding, but that attitude has changed. To date, Pulitzer Center projects have been featured in most major U.S. print publications, including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times, as well as broadcast outlets such as NPR and PBS. “They realize they are not in a position to do everything and are looking for partnerships with credible groups,” Sawyer says. In this case, the Pulitzer name lends that credibility.

Christian Science Monitor’s Peter believes groups like the Pulitzer Center will be crucial to the survival of foreign reporting. “This is what is going to enable interesting, independent reporting…You just have to be careful who you become bedfellows with,” Peter says. “It is a matter of people opening their minds a little in the changed media climate…I think that really for journalism to be what it is meant to be, it is going to have to be looked at as a public service and groups like a Pulitzer Center will have to step up and fund worthwhile projects, and newspapers are going to have to partner with these groups.”

Sawyer has answered this call. “As we’ve grown, one of the roles we play is a bridge for NGOs, UN agencies, humanitarian groups out in the field looking for coverage but who can’t get resources committed from traditional media…[We can] work in effect as an agency for the journalist. We put them together with these NGOs or the UN that can help them get access to places that need covering, and then we help in marketing the piece and getting it placed. We think we answer the needs at both ends.”

Another new business, HUM: Human Unlimited Media, Worldwide (HUM), was founded by a longtime broadcast executive to create a brain trust of all those working on the frontlines. Joy Dibenedetto discovered that mainstream media, when it covered foreign news at all, was focusing on just 121 of the world’s 237 countries — basically only half of the world. The result is that 116 countries, what the company has termed the “Geographic Gap”™ in media, goes uncovered. The irony is that these countries are host to the world’s emerging markets and home to the fastest growing populations.

With the goal of becoming the world’s wire service, HUM uses low-cost technologies and a network of journalists, NGOs and academics on the ground in the developing world to provide stories from the Geographic Gap that most of the media have missed. It gathers these stories in a centralized hub which journalists, corporations or individuals can access for news feeds, raw video, or packaged and produced stories.

Former network news journalists Kira Kay and Jason Maloney, similarly frustrated by the lack of international coverage in TV news, founded a non-profit organization, the Bureau for International Reporting (BIR). The globetrotters are on a mission to make under-reported international news stories easily accessible to American news outlets, and they fund their travel with the help of foundations, grants, and individual donors. They trim costs by using new technology and streamlined production, and they can often write and produce several stories on one trip, which they then sell to multiple outlets. “It is almost like a dating service, making matches,” Kay says.

Both Kay and Maloney have backgrounds in international affairs and extensive relationships with humanitarian, development, and advocacy organizations, which they turn to for story ideas, expert analysis, and help in the field. Their collaboration with International Crisis Group in 2004, when the Darfur crisis erupted, resulted in some of the first network coverage of the conflict. The NGOs they work with often feature prominently in their stories, which have aired on PBS’s Newshour, HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports, and elsewhere.

The Bureau for International Reporting’s web of worldwide contacts allows them to sniff out a good story before it breaks, which paid off last year in Georgia. BIR’s producers were monitoring the increasingly frequent shootouts, mortar attacks and car bombings between Georgia and its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and realized the American public had precious little information about the possibility of full scale war. They flew to the border between Georgia and Russia and were the only American crew reporting from within the breakaway regions just as the war broke out on 8 August 2008. Their contacts with NGOs and other sources on the ground meant the producers were able to provide context about the war, rather than just coverage of the fighting. The story aired on Newshour, World Report and PBS Foreign Exchange.

Like Kay and Maloney, an increasing number of respected journalists are taking buy-outs or otherwise leaving the business, and becoming facilitators between news organizations and foundations or NGOs. “There are more opportunities for them in this gray area…and there are a lot of trusted journalists out there who are willing to do these stories,” says former ABC News producer Green. Indeed, it was a trusted journalist who brokered the deals between Crisis Group and Nightline, and ensured their success.

Journalists’ concerns

Despite their potential, NGO partnerships remain a tricky business for journalists and there is no single model that works for every news organization. Key among the many questions is whether partnering with an NGO compromises editorial integrity. Can journalists really maintain independence when there is a stakeholder involved? And will the arrangement undermine the audience’s trust in the media, no matter how altruistic the cause? Critics might argue these partnerships go too far in blurring editorial lines, and put the journalist at risk of losing objectivity, and potentially, credibility. But is it better to use the resources — staff, expertise or even funding — of a non-profit organization than to not do the story at all? Is the journalist serving the public better by ignoring the story altogether or by using available channels? As news organizations look for new ways to access original, international stories, they are “increasingly willing to bend some of these rules, as long as you don’t bend them too far,” media ethicist Roberts says.

The journalism community is also uneasy about the presumption that they have an obligation to include an NGO in the story if it donates time, staff resources or expertise. Kavanagh admits he has received some angry phone calls from NGOs who aren’t mentioned in his work. “The question is, are they part of the story anyway? But what happens when you talk to ten groups to report a story? You can’t mention them all,” he says. CBS’s McClellan says it seems like simple logic. “If someone is pulled in enough to take us to someplace like DRC or Darfur, it would just make sense. There is no quid pro quo…but on the other hand, anyone with such access and insight on an issue would inevitably also be a very smart person that we should strongly consider including in the story.” Green, the former ABC News producer, explains, “I’m going to put that person on, but I’m also going to check all the other viewpoints out there.”

In fact, most journalists agree that the more an organization pushes to be included in the story, the less likely it is that they will be. “It’s the idea of managing the message that makes journalists nuts…we don’t want to feel manipulated,” Green says.

Critics who suggest that partnerships cross editorial lines fail to acknowledge — or admit — that these professional barriers have long since begun to erode. Military embed programs have become commonplace and are considered acceptable as long as they are openly presented as such and supplemented with balancing material. Field-based freelancers increasingly have a foot in multiple worlds, producing content for an NGO or writing policy papers for a think tank, or maintaining an opinionated personal blog while simultaneously reporting for a news organization. New York Times Magazine foreign editor Scott Malcomson says that each case requires a judgment call. “I know it is happening and it is a serious issue and I don’t know what the answer is. I take each case as it comes.”

Consider as well that these new models are being played out against the backdrop of a debate about what journalism is and who is qualified to do it. Citizen journalists without any traditional journalism training have become major players in the public discourse. Networks routinely ask for eyewitness reports from viewers, whose pictures, video and commentary might be less than objective but still become part of the larger story. When CNN launched its website for citizen journalists, Susan Grant, Executive Vice President of CNN News Services, explained, “The community will decide what the news is. We are not going to discourage or encourage anything…iReport will be completely unvetted,” although CNN monitors for objectionable content. CNN, BBC and others also solicit eyewitness reports in breaking news situations that add color and detail to the story. However, even if images or opinions are advertised as unvetted material, they are quickly absorbed into the discourse and those distinctions can become muted for the audience. Writes Reuters Global Television Editor John Clarke about the surge of social media during the controversial Iranian election: “Verification is a major issue. Video or photos might not be what they purport to be, either because of sloppy information from the person posting it, or deliberate deceit either to create mischief or for political or other reasons.”

The issue of influence is even more opaque when it comes to money. NGOs are not in the business of subsidizing media, but often help offset costs for journalists just by virtue of where they work. Kavanagh explains, “In some ways they are always covering part of my costs, when [a humanitarian organization] flies me out and puts me up in their private home, there is no cash transaction but they are covering costs for me…It is a gray area, and it is in some ways getting murkier,” he says. It doesn’t serve either party to look like it is trying to curry influence, and no reputable NGO would want to try. NGO-media partnerships don’t have to include cost-sharing. However, producing international stories is an expensive venture, and sometimes finding a creative funding arrangement is the only way to do it.

If the media have adapted to new players, new technologies, and new market demands, why can’t the same flexibility be applied to new partnerships with groups — even those with a stated viewpoint — that can help serve the audience? Just tell the audience. A heightened awareness about the potential of impropriety might even force some journalists to become more forthcoming about practices that are increasingly becoming accepted by the industry. And that frankness with the audience encourages honest debate that could then continue on discussion boards and blog sites.

Trust, transparency, and credibility are critical to producing successful relationships. With these key elements, answers to the questions about whether and how to best serve the audience should be obvious. International Crisis Group’s own experience shows that Ted Koppel is no less respected for producing important stories with Crisis Group’s help, and the audience probably appreciated his forthcoming explanations about how the stories came about. And when 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley traveled with Crisis Group staff to Darfur in search of a young boy named Jacob, viewers were given a compelling story that helped put a personal, human face on the ongoing crisis. Crisis Group conceptualized the story, and with its contacts on the ground located the boy in a refugee camp, translated his school diaries and helped navigate dangerous rebel-held terrain. Far from raising issues of trust or credibility, the show was so popular with audiences that it re-aired three times, and it won the newscast an Emmy. The experience stands as another example of managing collaboration to everyone’s benefit — the media, the NGO, and especially the public.

NGO concerns

While the journalism profession remains concerned with maintaining editorial integrity, operational NGOs in any prospective media partnership are concerned about matters ranging from personnel security to preserving humanitarian access. Long after any collaboration produces a story, NGOs must continue to work on the ground. If there is a perception that a group is helping one side of the conflict or the other, the lives of staffers, especially nationals, can be endangered, along with their beneficiaries. Likewise, the wrong message in a story can have dire consequences for the good-will NGOs work to build — and rely on — in a community and among the local authorities.

Save the Children’s Conradt says she is willing to help journalists, but only to a point. “We will tell them exactly what we have and what our folks can talk about. We aren’t going to get political. We aren’t going to do anything that endangers our staff or the kids in our programs, and they know that upfront and if that works, they are welcome to come along.”

Linda Poteat, a senior program manager at InterAction, spent five years working in central Africa. She says field workers tread a fine line between generating outside interest in a humanitarian situation and endangering their ability to work. “We feel like we are supposed to be a voice for the voiceless, but how do you do that in a way that doesn’t come back to bite you? We are so close to the conflict, we are institutionally neutral but on a personal level we know who is to blame. It is sometimes hard to self-censor when you are in the thick of things.” But that’s what they often end up doing. Compromising neutrality can also mean compromising access to vulnerable populations, or risking the ability to work at all. Governments in many countries are often looking for reasons to shut down or silence NGOs, and affiliation with the wrong news report can give those governments the excuse they need. One only needs to look to the high profile cases in Sudan to see the dangers. President Omar al-Bashir started revoking the licenses of operational aid agencies for allegedly talking to investigators just moments after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him. And in September 2009, UNICEF spokesperson James Elder was expelled from Sri Lanka after telling the media about the “unimaginable hell” suffered by children caught in the final stages of the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government forces. In another instance, a media NGO was forced out of its office in Baku, Azerbaijan, in an “act of political persecution aimed to increase pressure on civil society representatives and keep them in fear,” said officials with the organization.

There’s another kind of danger for NGOs that allow journalists into close quarters. What if they don’t like what they see within the operation? “There is a certain ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ arc to it,” the New York Times’ Malcomson says. Refugees International’s Parra says that it is frustrating when the journalists they help produce coverage that isn’t flattering, or that oversimplifies sophisticated policy points. However, she says while it would be nice to get positive publicity for the organization, it’s enough to just get an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground. It works both ways, says Conradt. “It is not just us getting what we want. And we don’t control the story at all. They know we can be honest brokers, and it’s up to the news organization to know who they are playing with.”

Indeed, the player does matter to many journalists, who say they will partner with an aid organization, but draw the line at an advocacy group. However, while many of these groups carry out different functions — some providing food and shelter, some prescribing policy, some documenting human rights — in many cases their end goal is the same: saving lives. And inside the humanitarian business, these groups consult with one another. Many operational NGOs have memorandums of understanding with advocacy organizations, who can articulate their messages without assuming the same risks.

When staff and beneficiary lives are at stake, it is clear that media partnerships won’t always work. But when they do, the advantage for NGOs can be significant. For aid organizations such as Save the Children or International Medical Corps, media visibility can translate to fundraising dollars, which in turn translates to more services for the vulnerable. For advocacy organizations such as International Crisis Group, Refugees International or Human Rights Watch, attention to an issue can affect policy, which in turn can impact lives.

A future for international news?

The Murrow days of foreign news reporting are long gone, but there is still a need and responsibility — and a hunger — for important international stories in American society. The only remaining question is how to produce those stories in the current media climate.

The picture emerging is one of journalists who are trying to find new ways to tell important international stories and NGOs that are adapting to meet that need. An editorial red line the media would have considered completely taboo to cross just a few years ago might be more palatable today as the financial pressures on news organizations continue to mount. Similarly, an NGO offering time, staff or funding to help a news organization might have once seemed far outside of its mission, but today it is an important part of maintaining a voice in a competitive field and ensuring that stories that affect so many lives still reach U.S. audiences. The tide is moving in this direction regardless: NGOs are becoming their own news entities, producing content in-house and reaching around mainstream media to distribute their brand and messages directly to audiences; foundations are bridging the gap; new businesses are emerging to feed the supply.

With new space opening for this kind of collaboration, NGO-media partnerships are offering a new future to international news. Those bearing witness on the frontlines of conflict zones — whether issuing humanitarian aid, documenting human rights abuses or advising policymakers — have a significant role to play in relating stories to American audiences. Although many organizations lack official policies, and while it might not be the perfect match for everyone, the fact is, NGO-media partnerships are happening. And they have the potential to lead to stronger foreign news reporting and better serve audiences interested in an increasingly interconnected world.

Kimberly Abbott is North America Communications Director for the International Crisis Group. In this role, she is responsible for developing and leading the U.S. media strategy to advance Crisis Group’s policy prescriptions and to raise awareness of conflict situations in the U.S. media. She has previously worked as communications and media manager for InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international development and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations, and, for more than ten years, as a reporter and producer for local, national and international television and radio.

Photo of Ted Koppel by Tim Brauhn used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 9, 2009, 10:30 a.m.
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