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Media and NGOs: Is there a growing tension?

Western journalists in Tanzania during visit to One Acre Fund project. (Credit: Tom Murphy)

In the first part of a multi-part series, we look at attitudes from journalists and aid workers about the relationship between NGOs and the media.

The relationship between journalists and the subjects they investigate can be tense. As the media landscape shifts and new spaces emerge for reporting on nongovernment organizations working in international development, more voices are emerging that are critical of the industry and the groups that participate in it.

That tension is encapsulated in the report The Aid Industry: What Journalists Really Think and the discussion that has followed in its wake. A series of interviews conducted by the International Broadcasting Trust with journalists and NGO staff give a glimpse into the relationship between the two groups.

The 13 British journalists interviewed in the report, some named and other anonymous, say NGOs are over-exaggerating global problems, overstate what they do achieve, and are unwilling to talk about challenges publicly. They also expressed some of their skepticism about the way aid is carried out by governments and NGOs. And they reveal what kinds of subjects appeal most.

“I get about 400 emails a day and if I saw ‘policy’ or ‘development,’ I’d probably delete them. We’re more interested in emergencies – that’s now a story and we like to team up and help raise money, for example, with [Disasters Emergency Committee],” says Sean Ryan of The Sunday Times. “We might do a development policy item in the News Review section, which is more discursive, but there are lots of other competing debates.”

Interviewees also weigh in on the aid industry itself and what it can and cannot accomplish. One of the leading skeptics/critics of aid in the U.K., Ian Birrell, participated in the report. His ideas on aid were shared by others. Many are skeptical of aid as a way to help end the cycle of poverty and spur on development.

“Do NGOs exist because it makes rich people in the west feel better? Do they exist because they’ve become large organizations and people don’t want to lose their jobs?” asks an anonymous journalist.

Other concerns emerge from the report, such as the lack of transparency by NGOs, the corporatization of NGOs and the sometimes too-close relationship between media and NGOs. Advice to NGOs from the journalists was equally wide in its range. The journalists urged NGOs to cut down on jargon and find ways to be less competitive with one another. The ideas and report garnered a mixed response from aid workers.

Doctors Without Borders communications staffer Sophie Madden told the Guardian that reporters are late to stories, as was seen in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The organization tried to make as much noise as possible for the problem, but it took months for major outlets to take the problem seriously.

Anonymous aid blogger J wrote a post about the report in Aid Speak. J went through the major points and provided responses explaining why he agreed or disagreed. While J conceded some of the recommendations made by the journalists, J pointed out that things like increased transparency are not cut-and-dry issues.

“I think we need to be careful when accusing NGOs of being dishonest, as well as when making blanket demands for transparency,” wrote J. “Neither of those are as cut-and-dried as they may seem in a soundbite or tweet. I think there are ways of telling the truth which inflame negative sentiments, and ways of telling the truth which do not. Both are honest, but one exhibits more wisdom than the other.”

J was not alone in pointing out the need for self-reflection on both sides of the divide.

“If you think you’re a journalist and you can’t make Syria interesting, that’s your problem,” said Ben Parker, co-founder and head of the news agency IRIN, to the Guardian. “There is compassion fatigue, but with the right access, contacts and journalistic skills you can get over that.”

Part 2 will take a look at the recent partnership between the Gates Foundation and The Verge to report on topics set forward by the annual Gates Letter.

Further Reading
The Aid Industry: What Journalists Really Think – IBT

Corporate, patronising and obstructive: what journalists think about NGOs – Guardian

Easily distracted but vital; what NGOs really think about journalists – Guardian

The Aid Industry. The Media – AidSpeak

Live Q&A: how can NGOs and the media work better together? – Guardian

Journalism and PR: News Media and Public Relations in the Digital Age – People, Spaces and Deliberation


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]