Joy in Africa: Are humanitarian groups doing the media’s job overseas?

There was a flurry of stories within the last week or so about the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, a nation with a tortured past and a future full of promise, uncertainty and plenty of lhumanitarian needs.

Mercy Corps' Joy Portella at South Sudan Independence Day

Joy Portella with Mercy Corps‘ Seattle office was there in the new South Sudanese capitol city of Juba, sent by the Northwest-based humanitarian group to witness and report on the new nation’s declaration of independence.

Portella travels a lot and reported out of the new South Sudan capitol city of Juba, including doing this article for the Seattle Times. Portella says pretty much the same thing on one of her earlier blog posts for Mercy Corps, ending with this concluding paragraph:

South Sudan will soon start the hard work of building a nation from the ground up in the face of challenges such as extreme poverty and lack of access to almost everything – roads, education, medical care, electricity – the list goes on. But today was a day to put those concerns aside to celebrate and imagine the possible. After decades of war and sacrifice, the South Sudanese have certainly earned their celebration.

Chris Sheach of World Concern, also from Seattle (okay, well Shoreline) was also in Juba reporting on this historic event for organization. One post from Sheach focused on Sudan’s educational needs and mentions some of the work World Concern is doing on this front:

The road ahead is long, but for the South Sudanese, it is a worthwhile journey. Education is vital to the survival of a nation. Without it, people will continue to suffer, even with their political independence.  World Concern is excited to walk the road of opportunity with the people of the Republic of South Sudan.

Lots of other organizations and people were in South Sudan for this milestone moment — including mostly the Sudanese, of course, and one highly influential cowboy hat from former President George W. Bush.

Portella has since moved on to Kenya, where drought and famine threatens.

What interests me in following Portella’s work for Mercy Corps is how she appears to be increasingly standing in for on-the-ground journalists and doing stories — or making her colleagues available for media interviews — for media organizations which aren’t there.

Here are a few stories or op-eds Portella facilitated for media organizations like CNN, PBS NewsHour and GlobalPost, many of which were “covering” South Sudan by asking Mercy Corps staff to describe what’s going on and what it all means.

Joy Portella interviewing at health clinic in Pakistan

Portella’s a good writer and observer. She recognizes that what she’s doing is, in part, to fill in for absent journalists. I talked with her briefly in Seattle before she left last week.

“I guess this is what happens when reporters can’t get to these places,” Portella said. “This is happening more and more. I don’t do political or news analysis but it seems pretty close to reporting.”

Jim Simon, assistant managing editor for the Seattle Times, said he would not characterize what Portella does as journalism.

Simon said the paper asked Portella to provide her on-the-ground perspective since she was there. But for news reports, he said they would rely on traditional sources such as the New York Times or wire service reporters.

I wonder if readers can really tell the difference.

I also wonder what Portella would do if she witnessed a war crime or an act of police abuse. Would she report on this, which would almost certainly put Mercy Corps and its mission in that country at risk?

“No, I wouldn’t be able to do that,” she said.

And what do other aid organizations think about how these arrangements affect Mercy Corps’ media profile — and its ability to do fund-raising? Does this practice tend to give Mercy Corps an advantage when raising funds? Does it allow one organization too much influence when it comes to defining the key needs or issues in a country?

I want to emphasize that I appreciate and value reading reports from people like Portella and Sheach. They are valuable sources of information.

But I also think we, in the media, need to take a closer look at how these gaps in foreign reporting are being filled.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Caseygraves

    I think you need to figure out how to make papers profitable again, before figuring out how to send more journalists out to more countries.

  • Jessica

    This is a great post and excellent point. As someone who has worked and reported for NGOs and also been the journalist connected to NGOs for comments, you are right to raise concerns. In the reproductive health field, one issue we have with foreign or rather local on-the-ground reporting, on touchy issues like abortion or birth control, is the proliferation of really bad press. Endless stories in Indian media about how poor hygiene leads to cervical cancer — a very real yet preventable disease there. Stories about abortion being illegal in Ghana, when it is really legal.

    These issues are so stigmatized, there is often misinformation, biased views, and sensational journalism happening. Not that this doesn’t happen in the US and other places, but the “gap” that some NGOs try to fill is to present the “other” side which is perhaps a bit more supportive of contentious rights or at least not biased against them. NGOs do this by both reporting themselves, and training journalists on the issue. The latter I think is a good option, though has its own issues as well. I’m certainly not suggesting that NGOs can cover these issues better than local journalists, or that they should be doing so. But just pointing out that sometimes there’s a reason a gap needs to be filled. But also, no, I don’t think readers can tell the difference between coverage, and that’s also worrisome.

  • Kjaffe1964

    Please help get soccer donations through the corrupt South African Government!!  I am working on a timeline document and facebook page to get some notice to this issue. Briefly it is as follows and I have all affidavits, documentation and emails from bureaucrats and authorities. Bottom line is that SARS and ITAC refuse to allow any donations to reach the poorest of children in the townships. Instead of letting sport – like soccer – become a way for these kids to improve their self esteem and focus on a productive effort, the government is ensuring that they “keep in their place”.

    1) Oct. 7, asked consul general and capetown airport for requirements for sending goods. The responded with the need for an affidavit from the donating organization which we provided.
    3) Oct. 10th – 70 yr old grandmother carries over 6 duffel bags collected by one 13 yr. old girl over her summer vacation.
    4) Oct. 11th – Customs siezes (can provide all names)
    5) Nov. – SARS and ITAC request importation and other forms provided within 1 week by Devonshire ROvers soccer team.
    6) December – After no response and no activity for almost 6 weeks, SARS and ITAC respond that “we would rather sell these goods out of country” – email from Lance Human of SARS can be provided.
    7) Late December – SARS agrees to return all of the items except boots and balls to me in the US and send the boots and balls through.
     More emails and then someone at the Johannesburg airport insists that this cam in as Cargo. Additional three weeks and this was cleared up.
    9) Lat Jan / early feb – SARS and ITAC said to come and pick up boots and balls. NOTE THAT OUR PROPERTY HAS STILL NOT BEEN RETURNED!!
    10) Devonshire ROvers travels to pick up the boots and balls. Airport says that they haven’t been “sorted” yet. As such, they returned empty handed (again).
    11) Awaiting three weeks for the boots and balls to be sorted officially.
    12) Mid March – SARS is now chagring 20K RAND IN STORAGE FEES FOR DELAYS THAT WERE INCURRED ONLY BY THEM!!! Not only that, they are charging storage fees for items that are supposed to be returned to the US as of 22 December!!
    13) Township kids are out of luck with no way of getting these items.

    I can provide emails and names of everyone involved. Please help!!