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Nieman Journalism Lab
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NGOs as newsmakers: A new series on the evolving news ecosystem

[Today we're beginning a series of essays here at the Lab dealing with an important set of players in contemporary journalism: non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. Its title: "NGOs and the News: Exploring a Changing Communication Landscape." Our friends at Penn's Center for Global Communication Studies explain below. —Josh]

The past decade has seen dramatic changes in the information and communication environment. Parameters as to who has access to information gathering and dissemination have altered rapidly and irreversibly. Civil society actors such as NGOs and advocacy networks are becoming increasingly significant players as the traditional news media model is threatened by shrinking audiences, the availability of free content online, and the declining fortunes of mainstream media. To what extent do NGOs take on functions as information intermediaries, working in cooperation with, or even in the stead of, traditional news organizations? Are we witnessing a general trend, or do NGOs fulfill specific purposes in times of crisis or critical events that focus attention on a specific (international) topic? And what are the consequences of this for the fields of advocacy and journalism?

This essay series, organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at the Annenberg School, University of Pennsylvania, in cooperation with the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, seeks to examine these critical questions from a variety of perspectives, and encourage discussion and deliberation on what these changes mean for NGOs, traditional media outlets, news consumers, and society as a whole. Each week, for the next three months, we will feature a new essay on the subject. These essays are the outcome of recent workshops that have explored various aspects of these developments.

NGOs as a supplement — or replacement?

One field of inquiry addresses the question of how NGO communication practices have changed over time. NGOs are, not surprisingly, adapting to — and to some extent taking advantage of — the changing information and communication environment. They are becoming increasingly involved in the gathering and delivery of international news, using a range of communication channels and technologies. In some cases, NGOs may form partnerships with mainstream media outlets. In others, NGOs act as their own news agencies, developing into their own media hubs or speaking to audiences and constituencies in a direct and unmoderated fashion.

There is also the broadening range of communication strategies employed by NGOs. How do different NGOs maneuver in today’s growing, but also increasingly crowded information spaces? An NGO’s size, mission, and resources influence how the organization thinks about, uses, and disseminates information. Traditional or so-called “legacy” NGOs must adapt to the new opportunities, negotiating and coexisting with new media and network-based NGOs such as Ushahidi or the Hub, for whom the current information ecology is a raison d’être.

New technologies and social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as more traditional media partnerships, offer NGOs a number of avenues, both old and new, for disseminating information. As advocacy organizations become more active in gathering and disseminating news, this raises a number of consequences, challenges, and ethical dilemmas. NGOs have their own agendas, and have not traditionally been expected to hew to the journalistic standard of objectivity. As they move into this arena, what consequences does this indicate for journalistic standards of objectivity and verification? And what repercussions does this shift have for NGOs’ communication strategies, branding efforts, and organizational integrity and credibility? These challenges are further exacerbated by the growing competition that NGOs face in the news space from bloggers and citizen journalists, among others, who also fill information spaces and develop news making capacity of their own.

An evolution of standards?

Finally, these developments have a significant impact on the traditional news makers: news media outlets, journalists, and editors. 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?

The essays serve several aims. They speak directly to a community of practice consisting of NGO experts, journalists, and academics involved in this field of inquiry. They list and share best practices, suggestions, and warnings. And they map a new landscape of communication processes, which holds conceptual and methodological challenges for academic inquiry and research. The series is intended to inspire and encourage ongoing discussion among practitioners and researchers. We hope you will join us and contribute to a vivid and fruitful exchange.

Monroe Price is director of the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania and professor at the Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. Libby Morgan is senior research coordinator at the Center for Global Communication Studies. Kristina Klinkforth is a research fellow and PhD candidate with Freie Universität Berlin who recently completed an academic research year at the School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University.

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Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
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  • Mostmodernist

    I don’t get it. What is an NGO in the US? All media is NGO, except for USPS.

    Does this topic speak strictly to media under dictatorships?

    NGO is not synonymous for not-for-profit.

  • rohanjay

    I agree with mostmodernist, aren’t all independent media companies non-governmental organisations? Nobody here has any idea of what the term means, which is why the arguments laid out are such a mess.

    Much is made in the accompanying piece of the US media’s cooperation with the International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG is a fantastic organisation but it’s not an NGO. It’s a think tank with a very pro-active research department.

    NGOs as the world understands them – and as they understand themselves – are advocacy groups. Even the aid agencies working the bloodiest ends of the world have an agenda to promote. They would ill serve the people they help if they didn’t try to turn the media behind their story, to win lifesaving resources and political attention.

    It would make sense, especially if you hoped to stay alive, to work with an NGO like Save the Generation or Memorial in Chechnya. But if you can convince yourself that you can maintain a picture of independence whilst embedded with such committed and courageous advocates, for sure you won’t convince Russian officials.

    Embedded is the key word here. All the advantages and disadvantages of embedding with a US army unit come with embedding with a NGO. I work for an NGO that is almost entirely staffed by journalists, and senior award winning ones at its top end to boot. But we are unashamably an advocacy group, and all the network journalists who pass my way in Iraq or Afghanistan get my organisation’s agenda along with useful leads, background and the disputed wisdom of my 30 years experience as a reporter.

    NGOs are essential, invaluable media sources, not partners, not journalists (even when they are…). In any case, as your commentator points out, the NGOs are no happier with the prospect of having their complex and contextualised message filtered through corporate media’s simplification machinery.

    Far more preferable – and in the age of social media, far more practicable – for the NGOs to spread the message themselves, directly, without relying on a US network with a coverage budget shortfall to do it for them. Watch for ICG’s channel on YouTube in a few years instead and leave ABC TV for Lost reruns.

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  • Arsen

    Interesting topic: to me, there is no way NGOs (advocacy or service providers, grassrroot community groups, etc.) can become news organisations. every morning i will keep going to the websited of newspapers for an overview. it is a different question that with the development of ITC NGO can have direct access to a larger audiences. yet one cannot say that this is good or bad. in some cases message that is communicated in a non professional way may impact the image of NGOs, so the new envionment requires NGOs new skills! from the other side, there is achange in the way traditional news organizaitons are operating – they are incresingly using the news content developed by NGOs and disseminated throuhg different social media. i believe the change is positive for both – NGOs and news organizaitons. well, of course for the final consumer too! yet this means that moth side shall start change their informaiton colleciton and dissemination startegies and skills to stay on the top.

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