Media and NGOs: Gates strikes partnership to promote annual letter

Bill Gates header image used by The Verge in its reporting series.

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

For the month of February, Bill Gates served as guest editor for The Verge, an online news site. The site published the Gates Foundation’s annual letter and four articles that investigate ideas set forward in it. It is illustrative of new ways that nongovernment organizations and aid groups are working with the media.

The articles investigate four areas where Gates believes technology can change the world: mobile banking, genetically modified (GMO) seeds, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and the eradication of a handful of diseases by 2030. Each story features a video at the top, where Gates narrates his big ideas as animations provide further context.  What follows are well-reported stories that look to experts and research in order to determine if Gates is right.

“The Gates Foundation was happy to hear me insist on editorial independence during our talks,” explained editor-in-chief Nilay Patel in an interview with Humanosphere. “Gates merely suggested the four themes of the series and recorded his voice for the Big Future episodes. The articles themselves are regular, standard Verge editorial pieces. So there’s really no conflict. We’re trying to explore whether Gates’ predictions are true.”

Each story in the series featured an opening paragraph meant to describe the nature of the partnership with the Gates Foundation and declare that the reporting was independent.

“Throughout the month, Bill will be sharing his vision of how technology will revolutionize life for the world’s poor by 2030 by narrating episodes of the Big Future, our animated explainer series,” writes Patel. “And while the topics reflect the bets Bill and his wife, Melinda, are making with their foundation, they’ve asked us for nothing less than fully independent Verge journalism, which we’re more than happy to deliver. Turns out Bill Gates is a pretty confident guy.”

There is no doubt the stories live up to Patel’s claim. The Verge is a technology-focused news site owned by Vox Media – the same owners of Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias’s Vox. It joins the list of news organizations that have been supported by or partnered with the Gates Foundation. The list includes: The Guardian, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, the International Reporting Project (both Toms have done reporting trips with IRP in the past), Upworthy, ABC and others.

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The partnerships are designed to raise the level of reporting about international development and aid. And the foundation is succeeding in that regard. The Guardian’s development section and NPR’s Goats and Soda blog would both likely not exist without Gates grants. Both news organizations are doing exceptional reporting.

One story in the Verge series focuses on agriculture in Africa. Gates tells viewers in the opening video that a lot of factors must come together to improve crop yields – from better roads to the use of GMOs.

“In this time-frame, the GMO-derived seeds will provide far better productivity, better drought tolerance, salinity tolerance. And, if the safety’s proven, then the African countries will be among the biggest beneficiaries. I think most of Africa will see this as a way to improve their productivity,” says Gates in the video.

The accompanying story distills his ideas further:

A new generation of highly productive crops, Gates suggests, are part of the solution to address global hunger – seeds that are drought-resistant, disease-resistant, productive, and nutritious could benefit farmers. Some of the crops can be bred through traditional methods, but Gates thinks many African countries will adopt GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.

Reporter Elizabeth Lopatto poses the question, “even if GMO crops yield more produce, will that translate to less hunger?” Her reporting comes to the conclusion that the answer is no. The story puts more emphasis on the need to improve infrastructure, looking at Uganda as an example where poor roads inhibit efforts to improve food security.

“Hunger in Uganda is a bigger issue than the impact of one GMO law: evidence suggests that improving farmer education programs and infrastructure investment can have a bigger impact than increasing productivity alone,” concludes Lopatto.

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The story on mobile banking falls more on the side of Gates’s idea that cell phones hold the potential to bring banking closer to people around the world. It too begins with a video where Gates describes why his foundation is investing in mobile banking so heavily.

Taken independently, the reporting and the videos featuring Gates pose no problems. The reporters do an excellent job looking at case studies and available research on the topics. Not everyone will agree with the conclusions in each story, but that is inherent in trying to delve into such big ideas.

Problems may arise when the reporting and promotion are put together.  For Patel, the partnership draws on a long tradition of magazines featuring guest editors.

“The foundation of what we did is very traditional. You come in and have a bunch of conversations. Our execution I think is very different and new,” said Patel.

There is a fine dance between reporters and the subjects of stories. Like an 8th-grade dance, there needs to be some distance between the two in order to ensure that the journalists are acting independently – both have the opportunity to lead the dance. If too close, the line can be indistinguishable or one partner can more easily dictate the dance.

This line was well understood by Patel and his Verge team.

“We tried very hard to make sure we did not present a world that is only about where Gates has invested. We could have written these pieces any time, but this time is different. We can say, ‘Here is Bill Gates talking about it and here is our feature looking into it,’” he said.

“We tried to really critically engage with these prompts. And I think we succeeded.”

In part three of the series, I will list some of the top journalists covering issues related to international aid and development.

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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.