Close ties: the relationship between NGOs and journalism in humanitarian news and picture generation

With many news outlets cutting their foreign news budgets, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have become key players in content creation and distribution from conflict zones and humanitarian crises. This post summarises two recent articles on the impact they’re having on news content.

by Carolina Are

Elly Brian – @elbwrits

How do non-governmental organizations influence media coverage of conflict? The case of the Syrian conflict, 2011–2014, Christoph O. Meyer, Eric Sangar, Eva Michaels in Media, War & Conflict.

The Syrian civil war has evolved in a different media landscape and under conditions more challenging to foreign affairs journalism than ever before. It therefore makes a valid case study to understand the way NGOs have begun to and will continue influence media discourse. This article by Meyer, Sangar and Michaels uses Syria’s civil war from 2011–2014 to test a model of growing NGO influence on the news.

The authors define media discourse as “the sum of discourses that are produced on a specific topic and disseminated via media organizations using multiple channels such as newspapers, radio, television and social networking services.” They use a ‘supply and demand’ model of news selection by journalists to explain the shift from use of material by foreign correspondents to content from NGOs.

On the demand side is the increasing fragility of journalism as a business model, as the traditional news industry loses advertising and subscriptions while new competitors spring up as often as ever. Foreign affairs journalism has been one of the most prominent victims of this scenario, since “its immediate relevance to local audiences is more difficult to explain, whilst its costs per output are higher due to the costs for travelling, equipment, insurance, local access and security.” With media organisation having to close down their offices abroad and rely on local stringers or junior freelancers, or having to buy content from news agencies, NGOs often become logistic enablers and providers of “background stories for sometimes inexperienced reporters on short-term assignments.” With factors such as the decline in trust towards government officials in countries torn by conflict, and the increasing resources earned by NGOs, it’s not surprising that they have become a go-to journalistic source.

On the supply side, NGOs’ resources and expertise often helps them provide funding for journalists’ trips to war zones, and it has enabled them to hire communication professionals at all levels, including former journalists, to professionalize their external communications and build a network of contacts.

Meyer, Sangar and Michaels predict that NGO influence on media content will likely be at its most intense when:

  • Journalists are unable to directly report from the country due to unacceptably high security risks.
  • Media organizations do not have the resources to employ experienced correspondents and provide sufficient support for their field trips.
  • Trust in political actors for the provision of reliable information about the conflict is low.
  • NGOs have staff on the ground who are able to conduct empirical research.
  • NGOs have invested substantial resources into the professionalization of their media and communication activities.
  • NGOs have acquired substantial credibility as a provider of reliable conflict information for journalists.

Meyer, Sangar and Michaels’ supply and demand model is not set to capture the longer-term impact of NGOs’ influence on social and political contexts, nor does it mean that rising NGO influence on media coverage is necessarily positive. It is however a detailed framework to expect and predict changes in the balance of power in foreign news.

In/visible conflicts: NGOs and the visual politics of humanitarian photography, by Lina Dencik and Stuart Allan in Media, Culture & Society.

Dencik and Allan’s article examines NGOs’ attempts to put marginalised conflicts and crises on the media agenda.  In particular, it looks at how NGO use of humanitarian photography can generate visual coverage of overlooked crises.

Drawing upon 26 semi-structured interviews with NGO personnel (International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, Oxfam and Save the Children) and photojournalists conducted over 2014–2016, the article provides insight on how NGOs have sought to produce, frame and distribute imagery from crisis zones.

In the current climate of shrinking newsrooms and budgets, foreign correspondents are becoming increasingly expensive, and the areas they are meant to cover disappear from newspapers and websites. In this context, NGOs are increasingly becoming an access point and a content provider for journalists, as the article’s interviewees suggest:

“sometimes NGOs ‘are in situations that media can’t get to’ and they can provide imagery from local staff or provide wholesale stories to media outlets that include entire packages of content and context (Global Director of creative content, Save the Children).”

This allows NGOs to push for more coverage of neglected crises. However, sometimes NGOs find themselves limited in the communications and agenda-setting tactics they can use, because of their ongoing concern with the ethics of representation. Handling difficult images of suffering is a complex issue for NGO professionals:

“[O]ur interviewees frequently stressed a particular concern with dignity and consent as the cornerstone of their ethical practice. On this basis, images that showcase notable ‘distress’ or ‘gratuitous shock value’ will be excluded from purview: ‘we want to show people not as helpless victims but as active dignified people’ (Senior Press Officer, Oxfam).”

This creates a collaboration ‘paradox’, as “collaboration is desired but at the same time the rigid brief and ethical standards presented to photographers can cause hostility and a resignation to switch off creative input and merely deliver as requested’ (Consulting Researcher, Save the Children UK).

Ascertaining the truthfulness of an image is another key challenge: ‘definitely one of the reasons we don’t use [social media] images very often. There is always a question of where the photo actually came from, who took it, who shared it’ (Media Lead Yemen, Oxfam). This proves that user-generated content is still a hurdle for NGOs, who tend to pursue accuracy and truthfulness in favour of a good relationship with photographers.

NGOs’ influence on news: a positive or negative phenomenon?

Both papers showcase the phenomenon of increasing NGO influence and content production. Keep an eye on our Twitter feed and our blog for more information and content on the topic – we will be soon hosting a book launch focusing on the relationship between NGOs and journalists!