From on the ground to on the air: Why NGOs need to think more like journalists

In our digital environment, everyone is a producer of content. Including journalists. This means that typically bottom-rung newspaper and television reporters begin to function less like fact gatherers and more like editors, culling and packaging content rather than writing up facts.

As UK journalism professor Paul Bradshaw writes in his multipart post about the 21st century newsroom, and “distributed journalism,” his term, “the professional journalist can no longer justify a role simply processing content from source to consumer. Instead, the modern journalist’s role needs to move above the content.”

This means, essentially, that for journalists, while researching, reporting, interviewing, and writing will remain an important part of their function, they will increasingly have to execute these duties with new tools, many of which have a social or collaborative element. In turn, this means, as Bradshaw says, “some journalists, then, need to develop a community management role…”

If that’s the case, then who will take up the slack for the more traditional reporting, for getting the information that the journalists will aggregate and organize to the journalists in the first place? Already, we’re watching the quality of journalism eroded by the 24-hour-news cycle, near theatrical political punditry (I’m talking about the U.S. here), anemic bottom lines, and the increased frequency of so-called parachute journalism spurred by the closing of international bureaus.

In stories about human rights, social justice, alleviating poverty, conflict resolution, civil rights, freedom of speech, etc., I think nongovernmental and civil society organizations will have to adopt at least part of the responsibility for collecting the facts, taking the pictures, conducting the interviews, documenting the events, and then distributing them to the press.

While perhaps it means more work for already underfunded, overstretched nonprofit organizations, it also represents an incredible opportunity for local actors on the ground, who have typically had to fight (and often lose) to get their message out, to influence news streams from the source. The good news is that the tools for doing it exist and are by and large free and easy to implement. Think international citizen journalism sites like groundreport, allvoices, and YouTube’s CitizenNews Channel, as well as local Lebanese outlets such as jaridtak. Blogging also provides a quick and easy way for civil society to create its own media streams. Just make sure you know how to use your metadata.

Having given these ideas some thought, I was pleased to hear Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein’s call for the same at the recent Global Voices Summit in Budapest:

For me as a journalist, one of the key things we can do, with the assistance of like-minded NGOs, is allow bloggers to speak for themselves and not automatically classify them as suspect, non-English speakers. For example, in Australia, more than five years after the start of the Iraq war, Iraqi voices are still virtually ignored. It is as if only Westerners, usually middle-age men, have the right to speak for the occupied people.

NGOs should work with news organizations and reporters to educate a Western media that remains highly suspicious of bloggers and the apparent inability to check their credentials. I regularly encounter editors in Australia and overseas who question my use of blogger quotes but don’t look twice if a government official is cited. This is gradually changing but remains mired in conservative, so-called objective reporting rules. NGOs can help in this transition to a more responsive and worldly kind of networked journalism.

Loewenstein, the author of the forthcoming book The Blogging Revolution, gave the example of the Amnesty International project Uncensor, among whose aims was to educate the Australian public, including the media, about the complicity of Western multinationals in aiding web repression. The focus was specifically on China, and to market the campaign the project created a mascot, Nu Wa, a monkey (above left) intended to contrast with the Fuwa (Yingying, above right) the five official mascots of the Beijing Olympics.

We need more projects like this—contextualized, of course, to the situations they seek to change—and more NGOs willing to incorporate the roles of not only information gatherer and reporter but also access provider (meaning it should be a part of every NGO’s mission to increase access to digital tools, but that’s a topic for another post).

The stronger, clearer, and more consistent these voices are, the better the media streams we so often complain about will be. Let’s not miss the chance. As Loewenstein says, “These rules of the game are ripe for change.” We have the technologies we need. So who better to change them than the NGOs and activists already on the ground?

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SMEX is a registered Lebanese NGO that works to advance self-regulating information societies in the Middle East and North Africa.

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