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May 12, 2010, 10 a.m.

NGOs and the News: Civil society’s place in the new news ecosystem

If you’ve followed our NGOs and the News collaboration with Penn’s Annenberg School, you may remember Laura’s coverage of the Milton Wolf Seminar in Austria. It was a conference to discuss the same questions raised in the series: What role should non-governmental organizations play in the new news ecosystem? As budgets for international reporting disappear, can NGOs fill the gap? Does thinking of themselves as media outlets change the way NGOs do the rest of their work? How should readers treat information coming from an organization that is also a player in the area it’s reporting from?

In the buildup to the conference, organizers held a competition to find the best student essays on NGO media and diplomatic strategies. There were seven winners; I’ve posted excerpts of the essays of five of them below. The winners were Columbia’s Kate Cronin-Furman, Tufts’ Galen Tan, and:

Tori Horton, USC: On using new media as an agent for change within organizations
Felicity Duncan, Penn: NGO journalism from a global perspective
Burcu Baykurt, University of London: Risks and rewards of NGO/media collaboration
Maria Egupova, Central European U.: NGOs and media in the South Ossetia conflict
Silvia Lindtner, UC Irvine: NGOs in the Chinese context

More information about the contest and all seven winners can be found in this document, which also serves as a nice summary of the conference’s discussions.

Tori Horton: Developing new media strategies and exploring potential consequences for governments, NGOs, and journalism in a blurred, flat and transparent global society

In 2005 I helped launch the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication explorations into the virtual world of Second Life. At that time virtual worlds as a medium for communication were just beginning and organizations were working to understand how best to utilize a virtual world. Governments, NGOs, foundations, universities, journalists, hospitals, corporations, and advocacy groups all converged; struggling to adapt to the Second Life culture, defend why engagement in virtual spaces was valuable to their mission, educate skeptics, acclimatize to a flat hierarchical structure void of traditional status signals, overcome fears of trust, re-create their brand for this new medium and ultimately define and work to achieve success.

To name a few organizations: Sweden launched an official Second Life embassy, The American Cancer Society began hosting virtual relays for life — complete with fundraising — CNN and Reuters opened news offices, NPR ran Second Life “Science Fridays”, Harvard taught classes, NASA opened a lab, the MacArthur Foundation explored education and learning, and IBM used it for internal communication and operations. Many of these projects were tremendously successful despite a long list of challenges. A few have determined that their project was more work to maintain than the effort was worth and have retreated; others continue and represent successful models of engagement. It is fair to say that as technology advanced, organizations that desired to leverage new technology had to be flexible in their media strategies and adapt.

NGOs are currently facing parallel challenges to those described above when dealing with disruptive media that forces them to innovate and explore media and Web 2.0 engagement beyond their traditional role. Becoming an intermediary for news organizations is not historically how these groups have operated, yet there are incentives to participation that have lured these organizations to experiment with news production among other new media awareness and engagement strategies. Based on my experience in virtual worlds, I believe that when NGOs and other organizations take on new media strategies industry lines blur, organizational structure shifts and transparency increases. As changes occur it is probable to expect a reorganization among global corporations and countries as they respond to paradigm shifts.

The first change is a massive blurring among industries when organizations compete for attention in a saturated media market. In Second Life, NGOs and other organizations worked to compete for attention, not just within their particular industry but at large in the virtual world. While this may be disheartening for those who preferred organizations that focus on the job at hand, it is exciting to see how new technology and corporate practices are more quickly achieving Keck and Sikkink’s “boomerang effect” by using new media to leverage internal and external pressure points producing change. In order for a group like the American Cancer Society to run a successful virtual relay for life in the world of Second Life they needed to create virtual representations of themselves and ignite the interest of the community. They were then able to use the event to heighten awareness of the relay in both the real and virtual world through a strategic press campaign, including an article in The New York Times.

The second shift occurs as organizations adapt to disrupting technologies and encounter challenges to traditional hierarchical organization models. This shift most often occurs when individuals on the “front-lines” tasked with communicating on behalf of their organization are no longer given time to clear messages before releasing them. It forces these individuals to become real-time spokespersons for the organization. In the virtual world they actually become the face of their organization, a spot traditionally reserved for the CEO.

The final change that is taking place due to new media strategies is a higher demand among end users for transparency as the new model to differentiate among news agencies, NGOs, governments and other organizations moving forward. For many journalists, transparency is the new objectivity. David Weinberger sums up the demand this way: “What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position.” All organizations are forced to either show more transparency in their choices or face questions when their motives are further exposed and challenged.

As a student of public diplomacy with an interest in new technology I have watched governments around the world struggle to adapt to new media in a similar process as NGOs and journalists. While they have not become information intermediaries for news, governments continue to push their own agendas and content. Governments can now be found in virtual worlds, on Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. They can be found twittering and blogging. They have created entire offices such as the U.S. Bureau International Information Programs’ Office of Innovative Engagement, designed specifically for media outreach to foreign publics through engagement in networked mediums. Spaces like Second Life are at the convergence of these practices as traditional organizations adapt to new technology and create networks.

NGOs, news media, and governments are adapting to new technology. NGO media strategies affect journalistic and diplomatic practices, but they are also indicative of changes across industries from a broader perspective. Strict industry lines are blurring, organizational structure is shifting, and transparency is increasing. The consequences will be varied, but connected and engaged citizens from around the world will tap into knowledge networks in ways that have not been possible until now. Consciously embracing NGOs (as well as other trusted organizations) as information intermediaries does not necessarily represent a positive or negative change for news, but rather a shift in information networks for society.

Tori Horton earned a master’s degree in public diplomacy from the University of Southern California. She has worked in the field of public diplomacy for the past five years. Her areas of interest include new technology, cultural exchange, communication, civil society, and humanitarian aid.

Felicity Duncan: NGOs, journalism and diplomacy: Conceptual murkiness clouds enquiry

The role that contemporary non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are playing in the fields of news and journalism, and diplomacy, has generally been understood in fairly narrow terms, leading to a number of conceptual problems that undermine discussions on the topic. First and most important among these problems is the prevailing understanding of journalistic practice and news organizations. The often-unstated assumption here is that when we talk about “journalistic practices” and “news organizations,” what we are talking about is a particular model of journalism, Anglo-American and liberal in orientation and ideology, which is primarily engaged in the collection and neutral, unbiased presentation of objectively verified facts with the intention only of informing and educating audiences.

If we assume this model to be normatively and actually dominant, then concerns about NGOs polluting and undermining journalistic independence and purity naturally emerge. However, should we be so quick to assume that this is the most important or accurate model for journalism and news media, and, as a corollary, that this is how practicing journalists themselves understand the news/NGO nexus?

In fact, journalism as it is practiced in various regions of the world is a more complex and variable phenomenon than the Anglo-American or liberal model suggests (Hallin & Mancini, 2004).

Some journalism traditions focus on a more narrative, literary form of reportage with more explicitly political objectives and a diminished focus on neutrality and balance as guiding principles (Hallin & Mancini, 2004). In other, often poorer and thus marginalized regions, journalism is not yet a well-developed, autonomous field, but rather it is the provenance of amateurs and correspondents who play multiple social roles outside of the news media and have less concern with objectivity (Rugh, 2004). Yet other nations have news media that are generally controlled or managed by governments with more interest in stability than in factual reporting, and in such locations a totally different model of journalistic praxis applies. What’s more, in today’s information technology context, worldwide audiences have access to the production of all these forms of journalistic practices, so it makes little sense to focus exclusively on traditionally conceived Western media. Instead, perhaps, we need to think in terms of more diverse and variable mediascapes (Appadurai, 1996). In the context of these different and overlapping mediascapes, then, the emerging role of NGOs in the news field may well be seen in a different light, perhaps not as a confrontation with or source of ethical awkwardness for journalists, but rather as an enrichment of the pool of information, debate and opinion available.

Journalists, particularly those outside the liberal paradigm, may themselves understand the situation in ways that are very different from those of Western journalists. Furthermore, in certain societies, NGOs may be perceived by audiences to be a preferred alternative to media that are state-controlled or heavily censored (Gomez, 2005), rather than as a threat to the purity or independence of the media. Finally, it is worth noting that even within those nations whose media are seen to exemplify the dominant Anglo-American journalism paradigm, such as the United States, news and journalism is changing with the advent of new, low-cost technologies that enable the production of “news” by ordinary citizens. Although this has often been greeted with suspicion and resistance by established journalists and news media, it is a process that shows no sign of abating, and is changing audience conceptions of what constitutes news and who is a credible source thereof. We should, in other words, develop a more sensitive understanding of what constitutes journalism in a given context, and for a particular audience, rather than assuming that a single model applies and investigating the role of NGOs in the light of that model. Seen from a different angle, the news/NGO nexus may present totally different problematics.

Another crucial point is the implicit assumption that, while NGOs bring a particular agenda to the creation of news, journalists and existing news media are somehow agenda-free. Only if this holds true does it make sense for us to be concerned about the seepage of NGO agendas into the supposedly pristine space of news. But of course, this is by no means the case. All news media are institutions with particular histories, structures and imperatives that guide their agendas just as surely as any other set of institutions. American media are in many cases part of global corporations with the profit motive as one core driver behind their models of news-making; some media are backed by political parties with particular agendas, some by states with agendas of their own. There is no unsullied field of news-making that must be defended against NGO invasion. Instead, we should consider the ways in which the growing involvement of NGOs in the creation of news alters or influences media agendas. Perhaps this will prove to be a change for the better, but to explore this question we must start with the assumption that news creation is already an ideological enterprise.

NGOs’ new media strategies are part of a broader evolution in news mediascapes, and a consequence of the growing importance of media in diplomacy efforts for actors ranging from states to mining companies — basically for all groups with a stake in global policy and negotiation. We should not fall into the trap of assuming that there is a clean, traditional news space into which NGOs are moving, or that journalists view NGO involvement with hostility. Furthermore, we should be careful about Western-centrism in a world in which Western dominance is under threat from many sides, and non-Western powers wield increasing diplomatic clout. If we ask, for example, what NGO information-provision does to news media in China, I suspect that our perspective on the debate will change dramatically. Given the degree to which contemporary diplomacy is a multi-polar, unstable and heavily mediated process, any exploration of the role of NGOs in this process must be sensitive to nuances, or risk irrelevance.

Felicity Duncan is a PhD candidate in communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. She was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she attended university, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communication. She has worked as a journalist and editor and holds a master’s degree in journalism (as a Fulbright scholar) from the University of Missouri.

Burcu Baykurt: NGOs and the media in global civil society

According to contemporary democratic theory, NGOs represent the democratic values of civil society, while the media is assumed to have a watchdog role. Therefore, the increase in NGO-generated international news content and its distribution to journalists is important not only for the future of journalism, but also because of its potential political outcomes. News agencies have long been criticized for offering homogenous content as well as providing stories that fail to challenge the ideological dominance of the U.S. and the U.K. (Hachten and Scotton, 2002). The new form of interdependence between the NGOs and the media could lead to the production of international stories that would not be told at all if there was no cooperation between them. So could this collaboration lead to the enhancement of the political capacity of global civil society? I would argue that although this collaboration may be positive, we need to address some issues in order to develop a better model through which the NGOs and the media could work more effectively.

First, leaving the provision of international news to the NGOs (and disregarding the journalists) does not comply with the ideal democratic public sphere, which assumes a watchdog role for the media in addition to the maintenance of the plurality of voices. As Natalie Fenton argues earlier in this series, NGOs that pursue certain goals and values cannot ensure impartiality. Although their perspectives and stories should be reflected in the media, no matter how subjectively they are presented, they will remain the views of a certain group. As Ethan Zuckerman points out, NGOs could either be manipulating facts in line with their ideological standpoint or interpret the events differently in order to advocate certain goals. Therefore, stories reported by NGOs need to be critically reviewed. Moreover, we still need professional journalists who can disseminate the voices of different groups, as well as address ideological or political perspectives through their critical point of view. In other words, we should always ensure that the collaboration between the NGOs and the journalists fulfils the democratic standards of objectivity and diversity.

A second risk that should be taken into account is related to the market logic of the media. This could have a transformative effect in the world of some NGOs in the choice of content as well as in the presentation of the news. Natalie Fenton describes this as following a certain pattern of ‘news cloning.’ The NGOs have already learnt how to attract media publicity by using celebrity spokesmen, creating sensational content or relying on dramatic images. While trying to disseminate their values or news, they rely on existing marketing strategies to attract the mass media as well as the audience. One striking example is a campaign by ActionAid, one of the UK’s leading charities, in which a model dressed like Marilyn Monroe announces the launch of the Dying for Diamonds project (Gaber and Willson, 2005).

By assimilating mainstream publicity and media strategies, NGOs may reinforce stories tailored according to the needs of media corporations instead of channeling the untold stories of the world to the global citizens. Media reliance on a few major NGOs presents a further risk. If the audience only hears the voices of NGOs that are trained according to the mainstream news logic, have established close relations with the major news organizations and provide the expected content and presentation of stories, NGO-media cooperation could threaten the political enhancement of global civil society with respect to plurality and the right to information.

Risks aside, NGO-media cooperation can provide an opportunity for the inclusion of citizens in the global public sphere. NGOs — as the civil voices of individuals related to certain humanitarian or political goals and values — and the media — as the watchdog of the power centers in society — could cooperate to activate the global audience or citizens to challenge the power structures. Their relationship should not be passive — in which an NGO representative provides the content and the media utilize it. Rather it should be active. Citizens should be empowered to frame their stories and broadcast their critical comments to the world. The Hub and Ushahidi are two examples of such NGO-media cooperation that have not only provided an innovative and extensive dissemination of news but also enabled citizens to participate to the public sphere. These initiatives have become global now thanks to the internet.

All in all, within the perspective of constructing a global civil society in a world that is rapidly becoming interdependent, strong collaboration between NGOs and the media has the potential to enhance politics and society. Although there are certain risks that could obstruct this potential as well as further opportunities that need to be explored, I believe that this evolving cooperation has implications not only for journalism studies but also for the civic engagement of citizens globally.

Burcu Baykurt holds a B.A. in political science from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Following her three years of work experience in marketing for a multinational company, she currently studies in Goldsmiths, University of London. As a Fulbright fellow she will continue her studies in the United States in 2010-2012. Her research interests are mainly the impact of the new media on the future of journalism and democratic experiences of countries as well as political and economic forces that influence the new media landscape.

Maria Egupova: NGO-media cooperation in Russia

As other contributors to the NGOs and the News series have argued, NGOs now play an ever-more-important role in foreign news coverage. But can NGOs really cover all regions in the world? In some countries, NGO-media collaboration works effectively. While in others it does not. In Russia, relations between the domestic media and NGOs do not work properly and are not yet fully developed. This lack of cooperation is also evident on the international stage between Russian NGOs and foreign media. As a result, Russian NGOs are not reaching international audiences and their efforts are insignificant; and international NGOs have increased awareness about events in Tibet, but do not cover the news about human rights abuses in Russia.

The 2008 South Ossetia war between Russia and Georgia provides one of the best examples of the ineffective work of Russian NGOs and the failure of NGO-media relations. While there were several NGO representatives in the war zone they asserted very little influence over the situation. They did not attract much international attention or raise awareness about the conflict. While they managed to stop the destruction and plunder of Georgian villages, they had little broader impact. In addition, they did not change the image of the war created by Russian media. For example, Alik Mnatsakanyan of DEMOS Centre, a Moscow-based research center for NGOs, argues that only one Russian battalion was located on the territory of South Ossetia on the eve of the conflict and these troops were a part of a peacekeeping force. Therefore he assumes that this conflict was not planned beforehand as Western media claim. Yet this information did not reach global audiences.

Domestic NGOs in Russia are making a relatively small impact on changing the political agenda or building a civil society because of the problems they experience. While representatives of large international NGOs such as Greenpeace or Médecins Sans Frontières can afford to hire a PR specialist, domestic NGOs have limited funding and abilities to reach a broader audience, nor do they have well developed web pages and competent PR specialists. This is worsened by the current economic crisis; an increase in charitable activities over the past two years (in 2008, Russian companies devoted about 14 million rubles (approximately US$467,000) to NGOs working in the social sector) came to a halt at the beginning of 2009. According to the Russian Ministry of Justice, there are 30 branches and 251 representative offices of foreign NGOs registered in Russia as of November 2009, the majority of which deal with adoption. In such a large and diverse country like Russia there are too many social and political layers and the limited number of NGOs presented in Russia cannot cover all of them. The majority of NGOs are located in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, and cannot respond quickly enough to events happening in different regions. For example, there were huge protests in Vladivostok, the largest port on the Russian Far East and a hub for importing used cars from Japan, on December 12 and December 21, 2008. People went to the streets of the city in order to express their disagreement with the policy of higher tariffs on imported used cars and on housing and public utilities. During the first protest people blocked the main roads of the city and access to the airport. On December 21, the Kremlin sent riot police in; people were reeling around the Christmas tree on the central square when riot police started dragging them into vans, including a few journalists from Moscow and Japan.

These events were completely ignored by the government-controlled national media. To fill the gap, the role of citizen journalists increased; they started uploading videos on YouTube and other sources. In my view, the citizen journalists were not trying to change international coverage, but news within the country. In the meantime their reports unintentionally contributed to the coverage of this story by Western media. For example the British Times Online covered this story without any reference on the source and without the name of the author; the New York Times cited the “Amateur video posted online by people who said they were at Sunday’s demonstration in Vladivostok”; BBC World included voices of some witnesses, protesters, “the independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy” and “the BBC’s Richard Galpin in Moscow.”

Yet I did not find any NGO voices presented in this story. This again proves the failure of NGO-media cooperation in Russia; even foreign attention to this event did not change the situation and did not make the Russian government bear responsibility for its actions, and the international community reacted in a modest manner.

There are some exceptions. For example, the Memorial Human Rights Center together with Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper) published several articles about the history of Gulags, the penal labor camps during the Soviet era, which were widely debated in the society. However, centralization, strong governmental control over NGOs, and threat of closures makes such involvement difficult.

NGO-media cooperation in Russia should strengthen civil society and increase the awareness about the events happening in the country; it should also contribute to diplomatic relations. Currently, however, this cooperation does not work properly and civil society is unable to affect the diplomacy of government and other international actors.

Outside of Russia, numerous international NGOs have increased awareness of global events — for instance in Somalia, Burma, Sudan — and media and governments take them seriously. Russian NGOs cannot do the same job; their presence does not really change the journalistic and diplomatic practices of the country. During the conflict with Georgia, Russian NGOs did not contribute to shaping the news, and the international community supported the Georgian point of view. The same situation occurred in Vladivostok; NGOs did not provide assistance and did not cooperate with the media, and this story was largely ignored by the Russian media. I believe that Russian NGOs are on their way to improving their position in society and that they will follow the Western trend and increase their watchdog function so the Russian government will start taking them into consideration.

Maria Egupova is an MA student in Political Science at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. Her main research interests are in the media communication field, print media analysis, media-Internet relations, and the challenges new Internet media present to traditional media. She graduated from the Far Eastern National University in 2008 in Vladivostok with an honors diploma specializing in regional studies of the U.S., Canada, and Latin America.

Silvia Lindtner: Media consumption and production in a networked society: Mixed media and NGOs in China

Other essays in the NGOs and the News series have explored the question of collaboration between mainstream media and NGOs. I would like to take this debate a step further and explore how NGOs, as well as other activist collectives, act across a range of media: What are the kinds of relations collectives like the NGO establish across and with diverse media sites? What are the kinds of publics that emerge at the intersection of activism and new media? How are these publics bridging across different localities and local politics? And once we speak of networked media sites and publics, how do local politics and issues at stake shape global relations and vice versa?

NGO activity in China presents an interesting case study for these questions, as China continues to receive heightened attention in broader debates of the impact of new media and technologies on social and economic change. While the number of Chinese internet users continues to increase, internet policies and legislation, ranging from mass closings of public media and internet access to the installation of control mechanisms on computer terminals, have impacted media practice and information sharing. Such changes have led to numerous debates over the impact of free press and the internet in China and the nation’s image on a global stage. New media, in particular, are considered by the Chinese government as a site of potential social unrest and of the formation of larger collectives whose opinions diverge from the one advertised through the tightly controlled mainstream media.

Setting up an NGO in China is a difficult and regulated process that often requires close relations to the government or the maintenance of informal networks. In light of China’s context of media and internet control, the question of the potentially beneficial relationship between the media and NGO worlds takes on a new meaning. While Chinese NGOs are technically not government agencies, the Chinese government still has an influence over them through various establishment and oversight mechanisms inherent in the national legislation.

In an earlier essay in this series, Kimberly Abbott describes how a tight collaboration between ABC’s Nightline and an international NGO called Crisis Group constituted a win-win situation for both. An alliance of such sorts might have quite different consequences in a climate of tight control and political and economic change as is the case in China. Some activist collectives and NGOs, for example, have chosen alternate routes, building informal networks across multiple media publics and engaging on a local and international level. At times, success is dependent on the anonymity available through social media sites. Just as important, however, are the ways in which diverse stakeholders imagine themselves as participants in a broader collective of media consumers and producers. While not necessarily directly interacting, participants in these webs of networked connections think of themselves as linked through an ideal, a shared philosophy or passion that spans beyond a single site or cultural context.

In China, the relationship between media, new media and NGOs and other activist collectives is an ambivalent one, and one that is clearly not limited to a single media site. For example, as much as social activists and NGOs exploit anonymity to circumvent restriction, so do large anonymous collectives of patriotic cyber-hackers that undertake attacks on international cyber-infrastructures.

This suggests an alternate route towards exploring the many possible relationships between media and NGOs. Media practices are diverse forms of participation that include both creation and consumption, and a mix of old and new technologies. New media systems should not be idealized as the guarantees for counter-action and resistance, nor seen as determining social practice. Rather what is required is a careful engagement with the local yet global dimensions of these new forms of media productions and usages as they play an increasingly central role at the intersection of conflicting political values, international relations and formations of new collaborations.

Silvia Lindtner is a PhD candidate in the department of informatics at the University of California Irvine. Her research interests include media studies and China studies, anthropology, science and technology studies and social informatics. Her main research focuses on the role of digital media in relation to urban development, political discourse and state legislation in China.

POSTED     May 12, 2010, 10 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     NGOs and the News
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