What aid workers think of ‘what journalists really think’

Any report claiming to illuminate what anyone ‘really’ thinks is bound to generate some controversy – and the latest from the International Broadcasting Trust (IBT), The Aid Industry – What Journalists Really Think, has done just that. This 14-page report summarises reflections from a sample of UK-based journalists – among them some who are quite unambiguous about their negative stance on aid – and paints a dark picture of the so-called ‘aid industry’.

Taken at face value, the report suggests that aid work is perceived by most journalists as an increasingly corporate enterprise, raising suspicions about the diversion of public and charitable funds to inflated NGO staff salaries. The report also reflects concerns that aid organisations have become excessively territorial, staking claim to certain causes and ‘policing’ journalists’ access to the field. On these grounds, the journalists interviewed suggest that critical media coverage of aid is not only justified, but well overdue.

Given the partisan nature of the report, it is unsurprising that it has attracted some equally blunt responses from members of the aid and development communities, charging that journalists reporting on humanitarian affairs are often equally (if not more) guilty of bias and arrogance.

While the sensationalism of the IBT report certainly makes good fodder for debate, the continuing online fallout from its publication last November unfortunately seems to have overshadowed a recent and far more nuanced panel discussion of the interdependence between aid organisations and the news media, chaired by IRIN CEO Ben Parker. Despite being convened on journalists’ home turf at London’s Frontline Club, the tone of that gathering seems to have been one of practical bridge-building between the fields, unlike the report.  Among the key points raised:

  1. Both aid and news media are big businesses with serious economic interests at stake, and both have an obligation to act as transparently as possible and manage expectations. That said, a ‘mutual mistrust’ can and probably should be maintained in order for each party to protect their own objectivity, so long as this is balanced with rights of reply prior to publication.
  2. The rise of in-house reporting and ‘advocacy journalism’ mean that the distinction between media and aid work is increasingly blurred.
  3. On a practical level, it is often left up to aid organisations to provide transport, accommodation and security for journalists in the field, and/or these details are not discussed in advance – this can result in significant safety and liability risks for both sides, as well as misunderstandings and ill feelings that can colour the resulting media coverage.

A second unfortunate consequence of the IBT report is that it presents these journalists’ opinions as a ‘breaking story’. In reality, the challenges of negotiating access and advocacy through the media have been recognised as legitimate and complex subjects for a number of years (see just a few examples here, here, and here). It’s not, in fact, the case that journalists and aid workers have been refraining from honest comment about each other until now, and it might have been helpful for the IBT report to more fully acknowledge this.

One final note is that the IBT report focused primarily on the aid–media relationship in the UK – again, it is perhaps not surprising, given the oft-acerbic character of the British press. But, to echo a point raised by other commentators, it would have been nice to see a more diverse international sample of journalists represented in the report.

To that end, it is encouraging to see a new fellowship from the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre (APJC), commencing this month, which aims to provide a select few members of the Australian media with the knowledge and training to report more effectively on development and humanitarian affairs.

Will a 13 day fellowship be sufficient to give journalists a complete understanding of the situations and dilemmas that aid workers routinely face? Probably not. But then again, neither would a 13 day crash-course in journalism encompass everything an aid worker needs to know about the press. The simple fact that constructive dialogue is happening in this region, at least, can only be a good thing.

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Camilla Burkot

Camilla Burkot was a Research Officer at the Development Policy Centre, and Editor of the Devpolicy Blog, from 2015 to 2017. She has a background in social anthropology and holds a Master of Public Health from Columbia University, and has field experience in Eastern and Southern Africa, and PNG. She now works for the Burnet Institute.

2 Comments

  • Can you expand more on the “partisan nature of the report”? Is this due to the list of people who were interviewed?

    I think in any field (certainly in my area of migration), there will be calls for more transparency and openness. I don’t see an issue with that. You only need to read a few blog posts on devpolicy to see in Australia, steps in this direction would be quite welcome. The lack of public oversight and evaluation, even if it’s trending in the right direction, isn’t good enough and journalists are well placed to call this out. I wish there were more of it in relation to Australian aid.

    It’s certainly the case in some Australian contexts as well – such as the volunteer programs and project managers on the ground – that there are very tight restrictions on media access. Volunteers are basically forbidden to talk to the media or even write blogs about what they are doing in a personal capacity. Funnelling all communication through HQ back in Australia is hardly an effective way to open up reporting about how aid works. I think this meets the burden of being overly territorial and policing access. Personally, I think this is being done almost exclusively for PR reasons to suit both the bureaucracy and the service delivery organisations.

    • Hi Henry,
      Thanks for your comments, you raise some excellent points – chiefly that it’s a two-way street, and if aid organisations want fair treatment in the media then it’s very reasonable to expect them to be more open and forthcoming. However, I don’t think that the fact that there needs to be more transparency from aid automatically lets journalists off the hook.

      With respect to the ‘partisan nature of the report’, yes I refer to the sample size and composition. Granted, the report is not intended to be a formal one (i.e. not a ‘scientific’ study), but I think it is a reach to suggest that this gives us a comprehensive picture.

      It’s also worth stating the obvious: both media and aid are huge fields and the levels of transparency and quality of reporting (from both parties) varies enormously. So some journalists are sufficiently informed and well placed to call out aid organisations, others less so; some aid org’s are very restrictive, others are not.

      Thanks again for your comment,
      Camilla

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