NGO Workers or Journalists? How advocacy group 350 filled a news gap for reporting from the Pacific region

NGOs are now producing their own independent news, rather than relying on journalists to tell their stories. We summarise a research article -“Unintentional Journalists” by Hannah Spyksma published in Journalism Studies –  that looks at what this means for traditional journalism writing about natural disasters.

Picture by Hannah Spyksma

By Carolina Are

Expanding The Boundaries of Journalism?

NGOs, which were traditionally seen as information sources for journalists, are increasingly funding and making their own news content. This has happened for a number of reasons, including: technological advances make news production more accessible;  an increase in staffing capacity and more sophisticated media strategies at many NGOs.

Spyksma’s research investigates whether NGOs are making ‘advocacy journalism’ (as opposed to more traditional ‘impartial’ journalism) and whether this is expanding the boundaries of journalism about crises. Her article argues that NGO workers are “Unintentional Journalists” doing the work of journalism, without necessarily meaning to do so. Following an exploratory case study of the Pacific branch of global NGO, Spyksma suggests that the organisation’s members who produced reports about the passing of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in 2015 intended to produce advocacy. This then filled a global news gap for reporting from the Pacific region.

Picture by Hannah Spyksma

The 350 Pacific Case Study – a climate advocacy group – became an important news hub for global media doing the Pam Cyclone. One of the group’s members was based on Vanuatu when the cyclone hit and he emailed photos, videos, video blogs, eyewitness reports and meteorological updates to the wider 350 community. These were then packaged and distributed through social media networks and a live blog, which provided rolling news coverage and updates from the cyclone as well as aggregating other international news reports on Pam.

Picture by Hannah Spyksma

Spyksma writes that the Pam Cyclone case study “highlights the impact of NGOs with an international staff team to capitalize on changing technologies to ensure voices get heard in faraway places.” She adds that the NGO’s news production is also characteristic of a new participatory style of journalism, based on listening to communities and providing a community service as opposed to focusing on an objective style of reporting.

This “unintentional journalism” raises questions about NGOs engaging in news production, and whether their advocacy content could be considered a viable and legitimate news service. Yet, while there is a risk that the NGO could serve their own agendas and undermine their own journalism, Spyksma found this was not the case during Cyclone Pam. She writes that:

“[I]n this instance the unintentional journalism the team performed was a powerful act of inclusion. It did what they intended to do: it put indigenous voices at the centre of the reporting and did so by listening to the community experiencing the news event. […] It is about considering what is relative to news; and if climate change in the Pacific is an issue of human rights, then 350 Pacific’s ability to report is relative to the function of news, regardless of its intent.”

Picture by Hannah Spyksma

Challenging Our Understanding of Journalism

For Spyksma, 350 Pacific challenged the notion of what it means to be a journalist in the Pacific and placed media production in the hands of local communities, which had before been bypassed, challenging “the top-down flow of content in the region” and Western-based news values and production techniques:

“[T]he values guiding their news production were entrenched in logic more reflective of the cultural context of the region than some ‘outside’ reporting. By valuing ‘islander perspectives’ and putting them at the centre of their storytelling, the team challenged approaches to media that place emphasis on elite sources, policy reports, unemotional reporting and impartiality.”

Spyksma’s work adds an interesting perspective to the research on the involvement of NGO/advocacy groups in news production. Previous work has been very critical of this phenomena: arguing that NGO-led news content can focus too much on ‘white saviours’ and erase local voices.  Spyksma’s work suggests that, in some contexts, NGO involvement (in this case, a climate advocacy group) can actually lead to the production locally-sensitive media content.

Read Hannah Spyksma’s article Journalism Studies here.