Media and NGOs: One academic’s take on how the two can work together

Press covers Oxfam protests stunt during climate talks in Peru. Credit: Percy Ramirez / Oxfam

This is the fifth part in a series on the relationship between NGOs and the media.

As a part of the conversation about the intersection between media and nongovernmental organizations, the Guardian hosted a panel conversation at the end of February. I joined a group of fellow journalists, academics and NGO workers to discuss the issue further. The two-hour panel, conducted in the comments section of the post, was wide ranging as questions were posed by the moderator and the audience about how tension between the media and NGOs can be addressed.

Unfortunately, the format made it hard to really dig in on some of the questions. I wanted to hear more from one of the panelists who was not in either an NGO or the media. So, I turned to an academic.

I corresponded with Tobias Denskus, a senior lecturer in communication for development at Malmö University in Sweden, about the report and the broader relationships between the media and NGOs.

Here is our edited conversation:

Tobias Denskus, PhD

Tobias Denskus, Ph.D.

The International Broadcasting Trust report tries to raise some of the issues between the two groups. What things do you think the report gets right? Where does it go wrong?

First, the report risks to make Ian Birrell the representative “voice” of the aid critics circle; he is expressing a somewhat necessary, but also well-rehearsed critique of aid that at its core hasn’t changed for many years, if not decades – international aid and conservative politics have always had a difficult relationship.

Second, it is interesting that the real or perceived increase in critical media coverage of the aid sector is not attributed to changes in the media sector or broader socioeconomic and cultural shifts in norms: What about the growing start-up and “maker-culture,” megaphilanthropists like the Gates Foundation or a general notion that (social) enterprises are superior to large, traditional NGOs? And what about the tendency that notions of fame and shame are shifting, often fueled by social media? It takes time to uncover the nuances and focus on a small range of countries and topics.

Third, the report misses the opportunity to engage with new forms of journalism; there seems to be a triangle between the Daily Mail, Guardian and BBC. Both media analysts and NGOs need to become more open minded regarding new journalistic formats such as Buzzfeed, VICE, Medium.com, Al-Jazeera documentaries etc. These online formats may have different needs from traditional newspaper media and NGOs need to prepare better.

How would you characterize the relationship between NGOs and the media?

I think we are in the midst of a changing, maybe even transformative relationship between NGOs and media. I’m not a fan of the Silicon Valley notion of “disruption,” but NGOs, or more accurately: international development nonprofit organizations, and media are undergoing significant changes. I also think that development and humanitarian work is often equated with NGOs in the media, which also means that NGOs get criticized although there is a complex web of international actors that are involved in development work. But if you read one of the many recent essays on the “future of journalism” and the “future of development” you will actually find that both have similar goals – from critically engaging with power structures to helping citizens to make meaningful decisions in their lives. But practicing what you teach and preach is always difficult – especially if your mission statements are challenged by an increasingly competitive and corporatized environment.

There appears to be a lot of fluidity between journalism and development communications. People seem to switch between the two with relative ease in ways that are uncommon to other industries. How does this contribute to the small level of media coverage the industry seems to get as a whole?

The communication biotopes of capital cities are made up of the same people. I can see that in my network clearly: Some friends work in PR in Brussels, other work for NGOs in London or the U.N. system in Geneva and New York – or in Swedish academia. So at some point we probably need to talk about filter bubbles, privilege and power in media-related work.

In your parting recommendations for the Guardian chat, you encourage NGOs to “groom the next generation” of media contributors. Can you expand on that idea and how you see it happening?

A significant part of the “next generation” of development champions will come from a very different background. How do we engage with Nigerian, Kenyan, Brazilian or Indonesian citizens who are interested in social change beyond liberal-market approaches?

As Western aid budgets are likely to shrink and traditional development education will either be marginalized or reduced to volunteering/voluntourism schemes we need to look for new champions – well-educated, curious, critical young leaders that are emerging in many places. If they become involved we will see better development debates and outcomes.

And if I can share some crazy ideas: I want an A-class celebrity to take a development studies course and learn about the field in a step-by-step approach – and turn that into an unglamorous reality TV show. (Ed note: Maybe Harvard Kennedy School graduate Ashley Judd?)

Or YouTube fashion and beauty bloggers coming together sharing experiences from different cultures and continents sponsored by an NGO … and top-notch junior academics giving up journal article and book chapter writing for a year or two and instead travel around to low-key community meetings – instead of mega-conferences with thousands of participants, it should be church meetings with 17 average citizens.

The word “media” is used in these discussions with regard to traditional news and reporting. I know you see it as much more. What are people missing by applying such a narrow point of view to the word?

I still wouldn’t underestimate the brand power of traditional media – and I see the same in academia, of course: A mentioning in the NYT, the Economist or an op-ed with a Guardian URL carry much more weight than a blog post or a campus newspaper. But new media brands are moving in fast. I find two developments particularly interesting: One is the rise of specialized outlets-U.N. Dispatch or or Turtle Bay report more details on U.N. work than any mainstream media; the other is that some brands seem to become more interested in international news – sadly because of the horrific news coming out of Syria and Iraq connected to IS or the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Buzzfeed, VICE, the Verge or Medium.com are more engaged now and I hope that they invest in reporting that goes beyond eye-catching crisis reporting.

What under-utilized forms of media should NGOs be looking to work with and deploy themselves?

It is always tempting to ask for more channels, more formats and more more. As long as it is authentic, a bit rough around the edges formats will find an audience-and sometimes they won’t. But as long as there is an audience for long-reads, the London Review of Books or New Yorker type of formats, there will also be an audience for longer aid-related formats. Blogging staff is one option, but in the future we will probably see more video-based formats that focus on the ‘behind the scenes’ like most good aid worker biographies do.

Your field of study, communication for development, is still emerging. Why does it warrant more attention from researchers and the industry as a whole?

On the one hand communication for development is actually quite established, especially when it comes behavioral change issues – your traditional hand washing campaign, but nowadays equally important to supplement public health efforts, e.g. polio vaccination or Ebola information, of course.

But as “media ecologies” as we call them are becoming more complex, communication seeps into almost all aspects of development; our tasks as researchers is to identify the nuances and not to lose historical, local perspectives – not everything is “Internet” and “mobile phones” and not every gadget is a “revolution.” I interpret communication for development as broadly as possible from discussing volunteering abroad with students, to research on the impact of social media or offering a critical sounding board for organizational strategies. And for me this comes with a mindset that sometimes favors direct engagement through my blog, Twitter or as a panelist over yet another pay-walled journal article.

Given that these are the things that you think about all day, what ideas and questions are you considering the most these days?

One of my challenges is not to get swept away by the amount of “innovation,” by the newest, shiniest and most cutting-edge campaign or an app that will “solve” a certain problem.

So I want to highlight three areas in particular that may not be that spectacular:
First, I’m very interested in traditional policy-making and how rituals and stagnation are very much alive – the same meetings and workshops, political ideology trumping “evidence” – no matter how much there is of it. As much as we tweet about the latest hype we need critical engagement with the traditional part of the policy “iceberg” that is under the water line.

Second, I am concerned about the “data revolution” becoming absorbed by traditional policy discourses and risking to replicate issues around privacy, data security or corporate involvement etc. that we have been discussing in the digital North. The big Internet companies are so much bigger and sometimes quicker and we need to make sure that organizations can contribute critical insights and sustainable approaches that really benefit the majority of citizens.

Third, and this is the development anthropologist in me talking, I am interested in the “life” of digital objects: Who is actually writing an organizational tweet and how is it negotiated in the organization? How do transparency and open data guidelines come into reality when there is bigger data and more evaluation reports? How involved in or distant from is leadership from digital realities? Does “digital development” matter?

What changes do you think are needed for media and NGOs to raise the level of critical coverage of issues pertaining to aid and development?

Besides the fact that development knowledge is more widely spread across opinion formers such as media, the “one person making a difference” story is still very much alive. Throwing the odd celebrity in helps because you can either mock her/him or applaud their engagement – celebrity travel stories write themselves and produce easy and cheap content – ideal for media outlets under pressure and deadlines.

My wish list:

North American media: Focus more on movements, people coming together for change, campaigns that slowly build momentum instead of looking for the next Greg Mortensen or Jason Russell! It would be fantastic if media celebrities would dare to be a bit more political, talk about inequality rather than stories that focus on individuals working their way out of poverty

Most other media: Make sure to provide context especially when you have a negative story of development: How are people/organizations/corporations/leaders outside development involved in what may seem like a “scandal”?

NGOs: Foster your staff’s storytelling talents – from reflective writing, to video editing to photography or other creative crafts – create time and space for different representations of development work and aid worker life! Not only will you contribute to your staff’s mental well-being, but over time you may be able to break through some of the stereotypes of aid work.

A parting thought?

What fascinates me about development and communication every day is that behind the innovation, the technological leapfrogging and global change are always similar big, difficult questions about how people can come together and achieve positive social change in their community – and “the media” and “the development industry” are much more partners than critical adversaries in working towards that goal!

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.