Aid Workers or Journalists: Who should report the news?

Shrinking editorial budgets have resulted in journalists turning to aid agencies to cover news from the frontlines of crises. Is this a threat to editorial integrity or are aid agencies filling a growing gap in foreign reporting?

  1. Aid agencies have invested an unprecedented amount of money into communications and PR over the last decade. Media teams at aid agencies are now often bigger than those at foreign desks of news agencies.
  2. Save the Children UK has 16 members of media staff at its headquarters alone (not including field-based and roving communications staff).
  3. Meanwhile, mainstream media budgets for international reporting have been dropping steadily, with a few exceptions. The amount of foreign news on US television has fallen by half over the last 25 years, according to the Pew Research Center.
  4. Aid workers are therefore taking it upon themselves to play the role of the news reporter. This article, for example, was written by the UN Refugee Agency but published in the Guardian.
  5. This week, aid workers and journalists gathered at the Frontline Club in London to discuss their complicated love-hate relationship. IRIN CEO Ben Parker chaired the panel.
  6. "You have journalists who are trying to report on problems and you have aid agencies who are trying to solve the problems. There is a mutual need and mutual mistrust," said Michelle Betz, a former journalist turned media development consultant, opening the discussion.
  7. The mutual benefits: Journalists get help accessing difficult-to-reach people and areas; aid agencies get their story and advocacy messages out in the mainstream media.
  8. Unreported World | 1 Bike, 2 Men, No Legs | Channel 4
  9. The mutual mistrust: Journalists worry that by "embedding" with aid agencies, the NGOs will control the message.
  10. Aid workers are worried about the safety and security of their staff, partners and beneficiaries, as well as the reputation of their agencies.
  11. To improve their relationship, aid agencies should be more open and take a "warts and all' approach to communications, argued Polly Markandya, Head of Communications at Médecins sans Frontières UK: "Don't pretend that your organisation is perfect, because that is not true..."
  12. Transparency and openness were the buzz words of the night. The panel agreed that the key to improving the relationship between aid agencies and journalists is managing conflicting expectations and agendas. Journalists need to be honest about their real editorial intentions and aid agencies need to be frank about what they can and cannot offer.
  13. But the two sides can't get too cosy, if journalists are to play a role in keeping aid agencies to account. Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri said she couldn't be very honest with her aid agency hosts when she was investigating diverted UN food aid in Somalia.
  14. UN continues relief in Somalia
  15. In the absence of consistent media reporting in crisis zones, some aid and advocacy agencies have begun producing their own content.
  16. But some argue this can be misleading...
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