VIENNA — When a massive earthquake rocked Haiti on January 11, there was only one foreign correspondent — a writer for the Associated Press — in the country to cover the disaster. In the following days, media from around the world parachuted in, relying heavily on NGOs for sources and context.
Two weeks later, most media had left. But there was still an audience around the globe, particularly in the United States, hearing stories and getting information because a handful of NGO workers, many of them former journalists, were still tweeting and blogging about what was happening on the ground.
This anecdote, recounted by Kimberly Abbott of the International Crisis Group, was the first we heard today at the Milton Wolf Seminar on the changing role of NGOs and media. The opening panel, “NGOs as Newsmakers in a Social Media Networking Environment,” laid out great questions to start people thinking about how the Internet, social media tools, and the mainstream media’s shrinking capacity are reshaping relationships between NGOs and journalists. There are pitfalls the panelists agreed, but the potential is exciting.
Abbott says that those tweeting and blogging NGO workers are not journalists in a traditional sense, but that they have the potential to help fill gaps in coverage. “As mainstream media is cutting back, the digital revolution is making it such that the public doesn’t have to take what the media serves up — they can be the curators of their information,” Abbott said.
Thomas Seifert, a foreign correspondent for the Austrian daily Die Presse, jumped on the idea of NGOs as news producers. When he was covering the Afghan elections, the personal blog of a UN field worker had an impact on his own coverage: “During the election phase, [the UN worker] wrote wonderful pieces on his personal blog,” Seifert said. The UN’s press releases were not, he hesitated to explain, quite as helpful.
Seifert sees social media and the connections it lets him forge with NGOs as a great tool for journalists; field-workers-turned-Facebook-friends have brought him great leads on stories in India and Afghanistan. But he also warned about the pitfalls. An NGO has to have “credibility, experience and proof,” Seifert said, quoting fellow panelist Franz Küberl, the president of Caritas Austria, a Catholic charity. “That’s a very good compass for us.”
Seifert described hopping a flight to Sudan with a Christian NGO. The story he saw unfold was the NGO freeing slaves who’d been kidnapped. “Henchmen” with cash bought their freedom. “It looked wonderful on camera,” Seifert said. “They came in with huge bags of money…it was great pictures.”
Two weeks after the story ran, he and a colleague at The Boston Globe started to think, “Come on, this is really too perfect.” The New Yorker eventually did the same story, raising questions about the motivations of the NGO, writing a more nuanced look at slavery, NGOs and the relationships with the government. NGOs have plenty of interests themselves, Seifert noted. In unstable places, they may prefer to work with one faction of the government over another.
Simon Cottle of the Cardiff School for Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies offered a broader perspective on how NGOs struggle with the new media world, based on interviews he’s conducted with Australian NGOs. Cottle argued that social media isn’t the future, but just a piece of a much larger galaxy of media that NGOs must operate within.
His presentation, which included points he’s written about for the Lab, touched on how competitive the new landscape is. NGOs fight to build up a “brand” and bend what they do to get media coverage.
“It may occassionally be possible for NGOs to lead rather than follow prevailing media logic,” Cottle concluded.
NGO officers as journalists. This bodes well for those of us interested in long story lines. Emerging Job Title: NGO Journalist