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Dec. 7, 2009, 11:08 a.m.

Saving us from noise that kills: NGOs as news coordinators in a networked public sphere

[Journalists concerned about the future of the news business tend to worry about important issues receiving a decreasing amount of coverage. But what if the problem is less the amount of coverage but the assembling, filtering, and sorting of that coverage? Is there a role for a new class of news coordinators? Our friend Lokman Tsui of the University of Pennsylvania looks at the role nongovernmental organizations are playing in directing people’s attention — the scarcest good in the new media economy. This is the fourth part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

The question of how news is produced is in essence a question that asks how we come to know the world. It is a crucial question to ask if we want to understand how and why people, events, countries, and whole continents are in the focus or left out of the news.1

News organizations have traditionally been the primary producer and distributor of news. However, as traditional news organizations lose the resources or the capacity to do this, particularly for international news, we start to see that NGOs are asked, or act deliberately, to take on even more responsibility in ensuring that the public does not tune out the rest of the world. Apart from the question of resources, Manuel Castells2 argues that in a globalized environment, NGOs are becoming indispensable in filling the gaps that appear when problems are increasingly transnational in nature and grow beyond the sovereign realm of nation-states.

It is important to understand how this process unfolds: It is not an exaggeration to say that the attention that NGOs can bring to a crisis situation can be a matter of life and death, as attention of the world is often strongly correlated with humanitarian aid and assistance.3 While it may not always be their primary mission, for many NGOs, allocating resources for strategic communication and becoming more integrated with the news landscape has therefore become an indispensable part of their work.4 Their role is to make sure that those without voice do not go silent, because as Medecins Sans Frontieres has said: “We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.”

For those concerned about how the world comes to know itself, the Internet offers a manifold of opportunities for NGOs that have yet to be explored and understood.

How do NGOs use the Internet to change the way we learn about the world?

Of course, the Internet does not unequivocally affect all NGOs in the same way. Some NGOs are much better equipped to deal with technological change than others. New technologies can have disruptive effects to organizations. Christensen5 has helped us understand why powerful organizations oftentimes fail to adapt to new technologies such as the Internet. He calls these disruptive innovations, because they do not only allow organizations to make their existing processes more efficient, but they also force organizations to drastically rethink their underlying processes. Price et al.6 have referred to this distinction as one between adaptation and transformation.

Technologies are disruptive in the sense that they ask organizations not just to adapt to the new technology, but force them to transform, or face eventual irrelevance or even extinction. For NGOs, just as for mainstream news organizations, the Internet is a disruptive technology that provides both new opportunities and challenges.

In an earlier essay in this series, Fenton suggests that it is the size of the NGO, and accordingly, the amount of resources available, that is a key factor in determining whether an NGO is able to take advantage of the Internet or not. She argues that in our haste to understand the impact of the Internet on NGOs, we too often focus on the large and well-known NGOs, and fail to understand that smaller, resource-poor NGOs are often unable to seize on the opportunities afforded by new technologies. Christensen’s theory on disruptive innovation offers a counter argument: that in fact, large organizations fail to take advantage of new innovations precisely because of size and institutional legacies.

Leveraging the Internet: Legacy NGOs vs. networked NGOs

What determines how an NGO can take advantage of the potential that the Internet offers in a transformative way? Whether NGOs are able to seize on the opportunities that the Internet affords is not so much a matter of size or scale. Rather, it is the ability to leverage the network that shapes to what extent the NGO can capitalize on new technologies.

Understanding the Internet as a disruptive innovation allows us to make a distinction between NGOs that adapt to the Internet, which I refer to as legacy NGOs, and NGOs that are transformative, which I refer to as networked NGOs. Legacy NGOs have optimized their work processes to a technological environment from a previous era, and are now facing institutional legacies as they try to reform and take advantage of the Internet. NGOs that have formed in the wake of the Internet are better positioned to take advantage of the transformative capabilities of new technologies and optimize their processes for a networked public sphere. Yet, the networked NGOs often do not get the attention they deserve. We tend to focus on how legacy NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, make the jump to the digital world. Yet these legacy NGOs do not represent all NGOs. Otherwise we risk turning a blind eye and fail to understand the rise of a range of networked NGOs.

Perhaps at this point a disclaimer is justified. The distinction between legacy and networked NGOs is not a hard and fast rule. Legacy NGOs certainly have the potential to, and do, utilize new technologies to their advantage. They might even form initiatives entirely built around new technologies, such as Witness has done with The Hub. The point is also not that networked NGOs are “better” than the legacy NGOs or that they will replace them. But certainly when we consider how NGOs are becoming more integrated in a transforming news production process, we cannot be content with just paying attention to the prototypical, well-known and more established NGOs. We need to understand how the networked NGOs work alongside legacy NGOs and mainstream media, and together form a networked public sphere.

From silence to noise: the emergence of a networked public sphere

Legacy NGOs are built around practices of content creation that are embedded in an institutional culture and framework that is optimized to deal with a scarcity of voices in the traditional broadcast landscape. They ensure nobody goes silent and that people have a voice on their platform. Over time, they have established an elaborate infrastructure that allows for the verification and legitimatization of the reports they produce, including a well-trained and knowledgeable staff of experts who do their own investigative reporting.

The operative model that is based on silence — a scarcity of voices in the traditional news system — is now under challenge with the arrival of the Internet. “Everybody is a journalist” might be a hyperbole, but it is clear that a lot more people now have a voice, if we consider that even Buddhist monks in Burma, one of the least connected countries in the world, have been able to bring matters to international attention by capturing pictures of protests using camera phones. While the increasing accessibility of technology increases the opportunity for those previously without a voice to speak, NGOs still have an important role to play.

Today, however, the importance of NGOs is no longer exclusively located in speaking for others — in making sure they don’t go silent. Instead, we have gone from a situation where silence can kill to one where noise can kill. It is easier for people to speak, but that does not mean that they are actually being listened to. To the contrary, with information, voices, and testimonies becoming ever more abundant, the most powerful story is in danger of getting lost in information noise. Therefore, the role of NGOs is increasingly to prevent voices from being drowned out, and to bring back signal into the noise.

I draw on three case studies — The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices — to help understand the emerging networked public sphere, and the implications of this for how we learn about the world.

The Hub is an initiative of the human rights organization Witness. Founded by Peter Gabriel in the wake of the Rodney King incident, Witness strongly believes that participatory video can make a difference in bringing attention to issues of human rights. The Hub, launched in 2008, can perhaps be best described as a YouTube for human rights. What sets The Hub apart from YouTube are two services that are particularly relevant in the human rights context: Witness pays special attention to the safety and security of its users and provides a proper context for videos, a crucial element that ensures we are able to make sense of the brutalities on which it often reports.

Ushahidi, Swahili for “testimonial,” was started by Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh in response to the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008 (for Ushahidi’s coverage of this, see here. The project allows people to submit reports through mobile phone, email, or the web. These reports are then aggregated and curated using Google Maps. In short, it is a crowdsourcing tool that makes it easy for people to share what they are witnessing. Individually, they might not be able to make sense of what is going on, but collectively, they are able to give insight into a crisis situation that significantly extends beyond what the mainstream media or individual citizen media reports are able to cover. As Meier states, “nobody knows about every human rights violation taking place, but everyone may know of some incidents.”

The third case study, Global Voices, was founded by Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman in 2004 as a direct response to the decline of foreign news, and in recognition of the untapped potential of blogs to help us understand the world. Theoretically, there is more information than ever before, from all over the world. However, this does not mean that all of this information is immediately accessible: language barriers and lack of context often mean that potential audiences either can’t access, or don’t understand, what is being said. The sheer amount of information available presents another challenge. This is where Global Voices comes in. Global Voices translates and contextualizes the important or interesting conversations for other parts of the world to read.

If everyone can speak, how do we know whom to listen to?

The functions of these, and other, networked NGOs are best understood as news coordination rather than news gathering. Coordination is the process of establishing order and organization in the information chaos in a concerted way. Coordination is not a new function — legacy NGOs and news organizations have fulfilled this function in the past and continue to do so — but new technologies allow the networked NGOs to give a different twist to it, one whose implications have to be understood in the context of a larger and networked public sphere.

If everyone can speak, how do we know whom to listen to? Indeed, Global Voices asks us, even challenges us: “The world is talking. Are you listening?” NGOs have always played a crucial role in making sure people had a voice, speaking on behalf of them. But they now increasingly have to make sure people are being heard. They are a crucial intervention in solving the problems that come to exist in situations of information overload and fragmentation of voices — that is, they bring signal back into the noise through news coordination.

The Hub — the name says as much — aims to become the central place for human rights multimedia content. Ushahidi fulfills the function of a hub in its own way by inviting users to share testimonials — testimonials that otherwise would be fragmented, but are now presented in a single, central, and orderly location. And Global Voices aggregates a range of perspectives from different bloggers around the world, offering us perspectives we otherwise would not get in one central place.

Networked NGOs whose production models are based on user participation might help us better understand the dynamics of how distant events are brought to our attention. They provide an alternative perspective, one that recognizes the possibility and the need for other cultures to bring matters to our attention in their own voice, rather than the ones we decide they should have.

In order to effectively coordinate, one must become a central player in the network. What The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices realize is that in a networked public sphere, one becomes a central player by allowing their content to be shared by being open, collaborative, and networked. Global Voices encourages citizen media and news organizations to make use of their content — through legal means (putting a Creative Commons license on their content) and technological means (providing RSS feeds that can easily be incorporated into other websites). More conventional news organizations such as The New York Times, Reuters, and Yahoo! News have adopted, included, and linked to Global Voices content on their news sites. Ushahidi and The Hub employ a similar strategy, making their content easily and widely available through legal and technological means. Redfield (2006) argues that advocacy has evolved from the individual to the collective level, as practiced by most NGOs. What I suggest here is that this too is evolving — from collective advocacy to a form of networked advocacy. The resulting media ecology consists of legacy and networked NGOs, citizen media, and news organizations working together.

Can we trust what we hear?

“How can we trust this?” is perhaps the most often asked question in the case of NGOs. This is understandable, since NGOs are organizations with their own agenda, operating increasingly in an environment where information is not vetted in the traditional way. Redfield7 has referred to this mix of expertise and advocacy, of finding facts in the name of values, as “motivated truth.” The issue of trust becomes even more worrisome in the case of citizen journalism and the Internet. Consider the potential of the unedited rawness of amateur photography that can instill an even greater sense of authenticity with the viewer, as noted by Susan Sontag.8 One can imagine that the personal nature of blogs and social media might also instill a similar sense of authenticity. By making available content that is potentially biased without being clearly marked as such, yet is viewed as more authentic, NGOs take on a significant responsibility. Indeed, when Witness initially asked for feedback about the idea of starting a website where any user could anonymously upload their human rights videos, many commented on the dangers and potential abuse of such an open system, the impossibility of screening every single video, the legal implications of it all. In short, many likened the plan to “jumping off the cliff.”9

A different perspective on the question of bias is provided by Hannah Arendt10, who once said that story telling reveals meaning without making the error of defining it. Her lesson suggests that perspective and meaning are perhaps more useful metaphors when considering the value of the work done by The Hub, Ushahidi, Global Voices, and other networked NGOs — that to view their work solely through the lens of accuracy is in many ways to miss the manifold new and different opportunities they offer. Herbert Gans would perhaps consider their work valuable comparable to what he has referred to as “multiperspectival” journalism.11

This is not to dismiss the importance of accurate factual information. Coordination only has value when there actually is something to coordinate. That is, the value of networked NGOs can best be understood as additional layers on top of the fundamental layer of news creation. This is not unlike the idea set forth by Boyd-Barrett and Rantanen12, who argue that news wires can be understood as being in the business of wholesale news, and national newspapers in retail news, because they customize the news they get from the wires for local audiences.

Networked NGOs do occasionally find themselves in the business of news creation — Ushahidi, for example, in covering the post-election violence in Kenya, was able to cast a wider net, receiving reports from areas that were covered neither by citizen journalism blogs or mainstream media. Ushahidi was not only getting information quicker than any other media outlet, it was also doing so in areas where news organizations were simply not present. But arguably news creation is not where the primary value of networked NGOs resides. Networked NGOs are but part of a larger ecology and still need the help of other organizations, particularly the legacy NGOs and mainstream media. Indeed, Zuckerman, in an essay that will appear later in this series, warns us against the dangers of relying on foreign news from a barren news ecology that only consists of the motivated truth of particular NGOs.

Thoughts for discussion

We are going from a situation where silence kills to one where increasingly also noise kills. The NGO landscape is adapting and transforming: the job of NGOs is no longer just to speak for others, but increasingly also to make them heard. In the face of new technologies, a range of networked NGOs have appeared, including The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices, whose function occasionally is news gathering, but whose value is best understood as news coordination.

Yet, more than ever, we depend on a multi-varied ecology consisting of mainstream news organizations, citizen media, legacy and networked NGOs, to keep us abreast of what is happening elsewhere in the world. In a networked public sphere, no one organization is necessarily “better” at performing the function of educating and informing; rather, they must all work together in order to bring back signal into the noise.

A better and stronger signal can only be generated through coordination if the operative models are based on openness and collaboration. A better and stronger signal also only makes sense on a collective and networked level. Moeller13 has coined the idea of compassion fatigue that is the result of the increased competition for attention. If we accept her premise, then the public only has a limited capacity to listen. Instead of every NGO each vying, even screaming, for attention from audiences, we should give consideration to the possibility of a networked public sphere where content is coordinated and contextualized, where amplification happens on the network level.

Lokman Tsui is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard in 2008-09. His dissertation tries to answer the question of how the world comes to know itself by examining the impact of citizen journalism on global news production. He is coeditor of The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age (2008).


Arendt, H. Men in Dark Times. Harvest Books, 1970.

Boyd-Barrett, O., & Rantanen, T. The Globalization of News. London: Sage Publications, 1998.

Castells, M. “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, No. 1 (2008), pp. 78-93.

Christensen, C. The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Belle, D. “Media agenda-setting and donor aid.” In P. Norris, ed., The Roles of the News Media: Watch-dogs, Agenda-Setters and Gate-Keepers. Washington: The World Bank, 2009.

Fishman, M. Manufacturing the News. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.

Gans, H. Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Hall, S. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Meier, P. HURIDOCS09: From Wikipedia to Ushahidi, 2009.

Meier, P., & Brodock, K. Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence: Comparing Mainstream News, Citizen Journalism and Ushahidi, 2008.

Moeller, S. Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death. London: Routledge, 1998.

Fenton, N. “NGOs, New Media and the Mainstream News: News from Everywhere.” In N. Fenton, ed., New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. London: Sage, 2009.

Price, M., E., Haas, S., & Margolin, D. “New Technologies and International Broadcasting: Reflections on Adaptations and Transformations.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, No. 1 (2008), pp. 150-172.

Redfield, P. “A Less Modest Witness.” American Ethnologist 33, No. 1 (2006), p. 3.

Sontag, S. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.

Tuchman, G. Making News. New York: Free Press, 1978.

Wu, H. “A Brave New World for International News? Exploring the Determinants of the Coverage of Foreign News on US Websites.” International Communication Gazette 69, No. 6 (2007), pp. 539-551.

  1. Hall 1978, Tuchman 1978, Gans 1979, Fishman 1980, Wu 2007
  2. Castells 2008
  3. Belle 2009
  4. Redfield 2006, Fenton 2009
  5. Christensen 2003
  6. Price et al. 2008
  7. Redfield 2006
  8. Sontag 2003
  9. Interview with The Hub.
  10. Arendt 1970
  11. Gans 1979
  12. Boyd-Barrett and Rantanen 1998
  13. Moeller 1998
POSTED     Dec. 7, 2009, 11:08 a.m.
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