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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Milton Wolf Seminar: Parting thoughts on NGOs as newsmakers, fragmentation in the media field, and the politics of platforms

Times are changing rapidly for the fixtures of international diplomacy: NGOs, media outlets, and governments. As news organizations shrink and cut back on foreign reporting resources, more NGOs are finding themselves in the unusual position of producing news themselves to get their messages out. As the way we consume news fragments onto new platforms, NGOs and governments struggle to reach a mass audience. I spent time thinking about these challenges while attending the Milton Wolf Seminar in Vienna earlier this month, and since. Here are three thoughts I took away from the trip.

NGOs as newsmakers

In terms of the future of news, the biggest takeaway from the seminar for me is what felt like an inevitable shift in who will produce our international news. American television news has largely been reduced to parachute-in coverage of disasters. Newspaper foreign bureaus are mostly gone. Faced with the alternative (of nothing), NGOs with experts on the ground have an attractive potential to produce valuable news. And it’s already happening: Panelists pointed to Human Rights Watch’s work during the 2008 Georgia-Russian conflict as an example. Work by many NGOs in Haiti reached a broad audience through organization blogs and Twitter feeds.

That’s not to say there aren’t huge challenges. Thomas Seifert, a foreign correspondent for the Austrian daily Die Presse said he felt duped by an NGO with an agenda early in his career. A journalist arriving in a foreign country with little background knowledge of the political landscape could easily miss underlying motivations, Seifert said. NGOs need to be credible, and journalists need to be able to tell the difference between organizations.

Kimberly Abbott, a communications director at International Crisis Group, offered more hopeful examples of partnerships between NGOs and news organizations. Abbott described a story from 2006, in which ICG provided 60 Minutes with all of the component parts necessary to construct a heart-wrenching story about a young boy who fled his village to escape the violence in Darfur. The story went on to win an Emmy. Abbott pointed to another story, which she’s written about for the Lab, in which Ted Koppel explained how Nightline worked with ICG to produce a story about the Rwandan Genocide.

A fragmented field

Simon Cottle, a professor of media and communications at the Cardiff School — who has written for the Lab about how NGOs tailor their message to get media pickup — described the fragmented media field as one of the new challenges NGOs face. New media has become important, but it has joined a larger, still ongoing system of news; television and print media are still important. With all of these forms of media, it becomes important for NGOs to have a multi-faceted strategy of reaching an audience. For news outlets, it’s a reminder that consumers are getting their information across platforms, from many outlets and in an interactive way.

Transparency International‘s Georg Neumann described taking on this change in the media landscape as an attempt at starting conversation. Joining the the entangled web of media (new and old) means no longer just using the top-down approach of handing off a report to a few key reporters. NGOs have to join in with the audience. He describes here how one of their efforts proved more successful using both new-media and traditional-media promotional strategies.

The politics of platforms

One idea that struck me during the seminar was brought up by by Silvia Lindtner, a graduate student at UC Irvine with a background in design. She described the need to be mindful of the politics and values embedded in the new tools and new platforms we use to consume news. Twitter and Facebook have their own values built into the platforms that seem to fit in with American democratic values — but what could they mean for audiences abroad? What values will come along with the next big media tool?

It’s an issue already under consideration by the State Department, Victoria Horton, a recent USC Annenberg School graduate noted. Horton, who studied virtual worlds while completing her master’s, said that in her research of Second Life, she learned that the State Department was actively engaging with the creators and backers of virtual worlds. When we’re talking about media consumption, it’s worth considering what messages the tools send themselves, rather than just the content.

                                   
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