Journalists and NGOs- working better together?

In this article, Lorraine Patch problematises the relationship between development agencies and media outlets, considering their differences, and exploring how they can work better together. 

The media and NGOs have something of a symbiotic relationship: one needs the other. However, rumblings of a rift between the two has recently become a topic of conversation, culminating in the International Broadcasting Trust (IBT) report The Aid Industry- What Journalists Really Think by Helen Magee. There was also a discussion held last month on the Guardian Global Development Professionals Network, facilitated by leading communications and NGO representatives.

The IBT report suggests that journalists think NGOs are too corporate and present a negative view of Africa. In response, NGOs say that journalists are frustratingly unresponsive to major crises, cherry-pick cases which they think are newsworthy, and oversimplify or disengage with long-running conflicts and humanitarian disasters.

However, mainstream media remains a major route for NGOs to raise awareness of their causes.

©Rodrigo SEPÚLVEDA SCHULZ/Creative Commons License

©Rodrigo SEPÚLVEDA SCHULZ/Creative Commons License

No longer untouchable

The IBT report goes some way to suggest that this shift in perception is due to previous scandals seen recently affecting the media environment, such as the financial crisis, the expenses scandal in the UK and malpractice at public institutions. The report suggests that there has been a change in the idea that NGOs are exempt from criticism. They are no longer considered untouchable, especially concerning transparency as the industry adapts to a higher level of scrutiny.

Nevine Mabro, head of foreign news at Channel 4 News described this change:

“In the past there was perhaps a feeling that they were untouchable because the majority of what they do is good so they weren’t worthy of investigation in the way that a big corporation would be…”

There is a consensus that the aid sector needs to be more open and transparent, and this has been further pushed as a result of this month’s bill to honour 0.7 pledge of aid. At a time of cut backs and austerity for many, international aid is subject to more criticism than we have ever seen.

However, despite these differences, it is interesting to note the similarity of the objectives that both journalists and NGOs strive for. Embedded within the two entities of international journalism and development NGOs is the notion of powerful storytelling. With ambitious fundraising targets and widening inequality between the developed and developing world, the lines between reality and fiction have potentially become blurred. NGOs face a constant struggle in saturated market to grab attention and, in the past, this has arguably led to a decline in quality storytelling.

So how can aid agencies and NGOs work better together?

During the Guardian debate, Tobias Denskus suggested that NGOs need to explore new journalistic formats such as Buzzfeed, and Vice.

The media is changing to an online focused environment and present different needs from traditional media sources such as newspapers and television are different.  As a result, NGOs need to prepare better and become more adventurous in their storytelling. They need to provide quality, sharable, newsworthy, truthful content to benefit journalists. In the Guardian conversation, a point which reappeared several times was the move away from statistics and the desire to tell the human side of the story.

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©Alisdare Hickson/Creative Commons License

Focusing on the Human Story

Another point which resonated was the agreement that the aid industry needs to change, and that this process has already started, particularly the larger NGOs. In an age of scrutiny and information, previous tactics used by NGOs to gain press attention simply do not work.

NGOs are increasingly responsive to this change; many are turning to dedicated teams that create content which is appealing and usable by journalists. Citizen driven media and documentaries are some of the ways NGOs and the media are making their storytelling more truthful, usable and supporting long term change.

These are ways which are more suited to telling the human side of the story and avoiding statistics. It is also helping to find alternative ways of delivering messaging avoiding outdated methods such as guilt driven imagery, ‘poverty porn’, provocation and the use of celebrities.

Possibly the biggest challenge for all NGOs and particularly smaller ones, is making long term grassroots development work as newsworthy as emergency aid. The Guardian conversation reflected the desire of many aid workers to prompt the media into using truthful, quality and human storytelling.

One of the panel members, Andy Shipley suggested why this is so important:

“The reality is, the sheer scale of many of the crises affecting the world today seem insurmountable and incomprehensible. Yet if you can relay the stories of individuals and how we can help them help themselves… surely that’s something both NGOs and the media can agree on”

The endless possibilities provided by social media and new forms of storytelling are an exciting time for development NGOs. New methods of communication could potentially have a big impact on development work, encourage social activism and provoke cultural awareness in developed countries. Both discussions highlight problems in areas of journalism and development NGOs, but also importantly define the potential to improve relationships and work better together.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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