We can thank Maine hippies for NPR global health reporter Jason Beaubien | 

Jason Beaubien

What makes for the best radio reporting on global health and development? We can credit some hippies in Maine.

At least, that’s what led to Jason Beaubien, NPR’s global health and development correspondent. Beaubien grew up way off the grid in rural Maine, raised by hippie parents who only had a radio for keeping up with the outside world. “We didn’t have (grid-based) electricity when we lived out in our log cabin … but we did have radio.” Everything Beaubien learned about the rest of the world came to him through radio, through his ears and his imagination, an experience that has clearly helped make him one of the most compelling audio story-tellers out there today.

Beaubien started reporting for NPR more than a decade ago in sub-Saharan Africa, beginning with a coup attempt in Ivory Coast (aka Côte d’Ivoire). Humanosphere’s founding editor Tom Paulson happened to be in Ivory Coast at around the same time, reporting for the dearly departed Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper on the early days of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘s revolutionary investment that eventually, massively, expanded child immunizations in poor countries.

Tom was doing typical ‘parachute’ journalism – flying in for a story and, when the going got too wacky, flying out. Beaubien stayed put in Africa, enduring dangerous situations and harsh conditions to tell the many broader political, economic and social stories. He later went on to Mexico to report on Latin America, including the drug war (which is often deadly dangerous for journalists). On our podcast, he tells us a few tales about being a foreign correspondent and why he thinks covering the fight against poverty was an obvious next step for him.

“In covering these issues, what just jumps out at you is the incredible inequality,” Beaubien said. To a great extent, he said, the conflicts and troubles he reported on for NPR are often rooted in poverty and inequality. He sees his new assignment, which may not sound as exciting as being a war correspondent, as moving from reporting mostly about what is happening to why it is happening – and what we can do about it.

It’s a great conversation. And as usual, before Tom and Jason compare notes on the poverty journalism front, we discuss a few of this week’s top news items. Tom Murphy noted that the campaign to rid the world of polio has again suffered a violent setback with more attacks on health workers in Pakistan. We also discuss Tom’s (the Paulson one) article describing how Seattle scientists are world leaders in a new approach to vaccine research and discovery.

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Journalists should not be the public relations team for NGOs | 

MSF press briefing.
MSF press briefing.
Médecins Sans Frontières

The following post is by Mike Jennings and originally appeared on his blog.

When I read a review of a hotel in the travel section of my favorite newspaper, the fact of who has paid for the accommodation is usually stated somewhere at the bottom: accommodation was provided by a travel company / the hotel, etc. In the Observer restaurant review, Jay Raynor pays for his food himself, and actively resists the freebies that might accrue from a chef desperate to curry favor. In refereed journals, published research should as a matter of course identify the funding which supported the work.

Different examples, but one common theme: I want to know whether the review I am reading might possibly be colored by a complimentary bottle of Petrus or a freely-provided suite. And I especially want to know whether research that tells me how good ACME Cure-fast is for healing all ills has been funded by the ‘independent’ ACME Foundation for Encouraging Tame Researchers to Say What We Want Them To. The same applies to stories on the news: have they been ‘placed’ by a PR company, ‘spun’ by the spokesperson of a government department, and who has written the narrative – the journalist or someone else?

This week George Alagiah was presenting a number of pieces on South Sudan across the BBC news platforms. They were interesting and good reports. One was on maternal and child health care services, and the tragedy of the number of newborns who die within 24 hours of birth. The interviews with mothers who had recently lost their children were sensitively done for the most part.

But in this report, a few things stood out. The health clinic with whom the reporter was travelling was, we were told, supported by Save the Children. Save the Children logos on the clothes of those being filmed, and on the cars George and his team were travelling in, were prominent. The story was linked to a report and campaign being launched by the NGO, and its Chief Executive Justin Forsyth spoke from South Sudan to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

Now of course, there is nothing wrong with this campaign, nor with its being reported. But it is a reminder of how many news stories across much of sub-Saharan Africa are driven (and the narrative shaped and controlled) by NGOs. This is by no means an egregious example – this is certainly not the mess of media reporting that was Goma in the late 1990s.

Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Save the Children, from ensuring its branding is on display, and being identified as the sole supporter of the hospital at Nimule, is in the driving seat. At one point it was reported that ‘according to Save the Children’, around 4,100 children die within their first 24 hours of life. But this isn’t a figure that comes from the NGO. It comes from WHO statistics. It may seem a rather petty thing to be concerned with, given the tragedy and horror that statistic points underscores, but surely responsible reporting should be going to the source (I would, for example, expect my students to go to the original source)

There is widespread concern that too many media stories are driven by NGOs who provide not only access, transport, and ‘facts’, but more worryingly, the narrative as well. Indeed, I have heard George Alagiah himself voice concern on this precise issue. This is not to say NGOs should not get their campaigns, findings or concerns on the news; nor that journalists should not engage with NGOs. But more care needs to be taken to both assert media independence and provide full transparency.

Where reporters are given access via an NGO, use their transport, are taken to particular areas or facilities by an organisation, this needs to be clearly stated during the report. Surely no-one believes any more than just because the organisation is a humanitarian one, it is free from questions of self-interest in the shaping of narratives?

NGOs have private interests, as much as altruistic humanitarian objectives. Just as we should be careful of the PR experts who spin government stories, and rightly mock the shambles of Mastercard’s PR company trying to dictate what journalists should say in return for tickets to the Brits, we also need the media to ensure full and open independence from even those organisations whose humanitarian motives would seem to be honorable and decent.

Above all, let’s not forget that NGOs have increasing numbers of very professional, very skilled PR teams whose job is to raise the profile of the organisation and its campaigns. And the job of journalists should be to make use of, but not be driven by, those PR teams, no matter what kind of organisation they work for.

Lies, Damned Lies, Latin America and the Media | 

mediaOn this week’s podcast, I chat with Keane Bhatt about media reporting gone awry with systemic inaccuracies and bias.

And we’re not just talking about Fox News. Bhatt has zeroed in on some of the most prestigious media outlets, like the The New Yorker, The New York Times, and This American Life, and found their coverage of Latin America to be outright misleading.

Many of our readers and listeners travel to developing countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti to work with nonprofits and NGOs. If you’re one of them, you’ll want a full, unvarnished understanding of how U.S. policy impacts these places, rather than news that’s filtered through officialdom. Bhatt, who volunteered with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, has taken a close look at how the media covers these countries – everything from charter cities, to elections, to poverty reduction programs – which we discuss in detail. We also touch on Rwanda. Bhatt is calling for informed and principled efforts to help the poor, not just convenient ones made more politically expedient by warped media portrayals.

Bhatt is an activist and writer in Washington, D.C, who’s worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of social justice campaigns. His work has appeared on NPR, Al Jazeera English, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, and CNN En Español. And he writes the blog Manufacturing Contempt for the North American Congress on Latin America.

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Much Ado about Power and Rice | 

President Barack Obama, second from left, walks with with United Nations Ambassdor Susan Rice, third from left, his choice to be his next National Security Adviser, current National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, left, and Samantha Power, his nominee to be the next United Nations Ambassador, in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday, June 5, 2013, in Washington. ()
Donilon, Obama, Rice and Power walk in the Rose Garden of the White House, yesterday.
Evan Vucci

If there were such a thing as a foreign policy earthquake, the magnitude of yesterday’s White House reshuffle would have measured quite high.

Twitter, blogs and media were abuzz with the news that the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice would take over as National Security Advisor and former journalist Samantha Power is to occupy Rice’s former seat at the UN.

You may remember Rice as the potential candidate for Secretary of State who’s comments following the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi became an attack point for Congressional Republicans and led to her withdrawal from consideration.

Power comes with her own baggage. The former journalist and academic was a strong critic of the lack of action by the United States during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. She is a strong advocate for the US taking an active role in genocide prevention and joined Rice in advocating for the US-led intervention into Libya in 2011.

Rice and Power represent a multitude of things to the humanitarian world. For some, Rice is a strong Africanist that will bring the continent to the forefront. Others will point to her failure on Rwanda and subsequent close relationship with President Kagame as problematic. Power is polarizing in her bend towards interventions. Supporters see her  as a strong voice on atrocity prevention and a ‘nod for the development community‘ while critics point at her neo-conservative tendency to elevate military action above diplomacy.

Uganda’s Brazen Press Crackdown Continues | 

Staff of the independent Ugandan newspaper the Daily Monitor are without an office as a standoff with Ugandan police entered its 10th day. All over a letter written by a general in the Ugandan army that rankled President Museveni.

Ugandan police unceremoniously stormed the offices of the independent newspaper the Daily Monitor last Monday. Police searched the offices of the newspaper for a letter written by General David Sejusa, thanks to a warrant issued by the Nakawa Magistrates Court. The opposition figure raised concerns for the safety of people who oppose a secret plan of succession from President Museveni, in office since 1986, to his son. Police also took two radio stations connected with the Daily Monitor, KFM and Dembe FM, off the air. The letter also led to the removal of army chief Gen. Aronda Nyakairima and his deputy from service due to their inclusion in the Sejusa letter.

“You need to investigate the very serious claims that the same actors are re-organising elements of former Wembley under one police officer Ayegasire Nixon to assassinate people who disagree with this so-called family project of holding onto power in perpetuity,” wrote the general at the beginning of the month.

Sejusa traveled to London shortly after the publication of the letter and has remained there since the furor and media raids. His lawyer says that Britain granted Sejusa the ability to stay in the country over fears for his life. He accused the government of using the military as a de facto political prison by forcing opposition members to enlist and employing military law to suppress opinions. Continue reading

The Problems with Western Journalists in Africa | 

Western journalists were rightly criticized for the overall level of coverage surrounding the Kenyan elections. However, it is a case that is a part of what seems to be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to how Western reporters will tell stories from the African continent.

The image of a western journalist interviewing a traditional African may seem like a trope of the past, but look no further than the below image from a PBS MediaShift report.

Cornell University English professor Mukoma Wa Ngugi makes the case in Africa Is a Country that Western journalists continue to fail to “tell the whole story of humanity at work.” He says that American reporting on tragedies that took place in the US show dignity of the victims and tell stories of heroism and triumph during tragedy.

A three paragraph article in Reuters offered the choice terms “tribal blood-letting” to reference the 2007 post-electoral violence, and “loyalists from rival tribes” to talk about the hard-earned right to cast a vote. Virtually all the longer pieces from Reuters on the elections used the concept of tribal blood-letting. CNN also ran a story in February of this year that showed five or so men somewhere in a Kenyan jungle playing war games with homemade guns, a handful of bullets and rusty machetes – war paint and all.

Such stories do not make it into the coverage of tragedy from Africa. However, he neglects to recognize the constraints on foreign correspondents or journalists who report on Africa. Page space for stories about Africa is few and far between these days.

Not to excuse poor reporting, rather I point it out to say that it is far more challenging than domestic news. Major tragedies in the United States feel like they are over covered as the press corps descends upon the location of the event and tries to pump out every story possible. Continue reading

A chat with NY Times’ David Bornstein about ‘solutions’ journalism | 

Abigail Gampel

David Bornstein

David Bornstein is what many would consider a rare bird — an optimistic and forward-looking journalist.

Bornstein is also one of my favorite writers on aid and development issues, for the New York Times Opinionator column and as an author of a number of important books including one on the anti-poverty scheme known as microfinance, The Price of a Dream, and his more recent book How to Change the World, a look at the social enterprise movement.

On Thursday, it was announced that Bornstein and his NYTimes colleague Tina Rosenberg were among the winners of 90 new grants, each of which starts out at $100,000, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations program.

That wasn’t quite right: Bornstein later responded, after the awards were announced, that he and Rosenberg will not receive any of the grant money and are only collaborating on the Gates-funded project at Marquette University.

“We are cooperating with Marquette. But they prepared the proposal and they will be doing all the work and receiving the full grant.”

Here’s what the Gates Foundation said in announcing the grant winner: “The Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, USA, will partner with David Bornstein (How to Change the World) and Tina Rosenberg (Pulitzer prize-winning The Haunted Land) to build the first Wiki-style platform that packages solutions-journalism (specifically NYTimes Fixes columns) into mini-case-studies for educators around the world to embed in, and across, the curriculum.”

I missed the nuance there. Sorry about that.

Bornstein, who contacted me after this post was published, said the NY Times prohibits them from accepting grant money (for work done at NYTimes) and they are unpaid collaborators with Marquette, allowing them to repurpose their columns and to help them think through the process.

The Grand Challenges Exploration program was created by the Gates Foundation mostly to fund ‘wacky’ (aka high risk) scientific projects and that’s mostly still what it has supported among its 800 projects funded to date.

Gates Foundation

One example pictured at right: Agenor Mafra-Neto and his colleagues are building inexpensive laser bug sensors that accurately count and identify flying insect pests from a distance. Because it’s always good to know exactly how many and which types of bugs there are.

Anyway, you can read more about the latest round of wacky scientific winners at the philanthropy’s website.

I’m going to focus on Bornstein, as an example of how the Grand Challenges initiative has expanded its scope to include funding communications efforts that show “Aid is Working.” Continue reading

Guest Post: The fragile promise of peace in Colombia | 

Katherine McKeon

This is a guest post by Katherine McKeon, a UW communications major who recently returned to Seattle after working this summer for Reuters in Bogota, Colombia. The promise of peace talks between the government and FARC rebels is big news but, as she reports, few Colombians are getting their hopes up.

Katherine, in addition to her studies, three jobs and other demands that exhaust me just thinking about them will be working as an intern on Facebook for Humanosphere – so say hi to her!


Walking to Work

After spending two months in Colombia, I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing for myself that this Andean nation is much more than its narco-lord past.

The two largest rebel groups have agreed to open their doors to peace talks, making stability a real possibility for a country with decades of scars from political and sectarian violence. Still, many Colombians remain  skeptical.

The scars are deep.

 ”I don’t think peace is a realistic possibility,” said Jaime Rodriguez, a twenty-two year-old Colombian who works at a restaurant.  “It’s just too complicated of a place, too many things have happened, and everyone remembers the violence.”

Continue reading