A new year’s resolution for aid agencies and broadcasters

As the first full week of the new year kicks off, self-improvement is at the forefront of most people’s minds.

Instead of the usual resolutions to give up smoking, eat less and go to the gym, my plea for aid agencies and journalists is: rethink your relationship.

In the past, to operate in disaster zones, reporters had to turn to aid agencies. The result was a situation in which it was to the advantage of both sides that the story was as strong as possible. It’s been described as a marriage of convenience, but at its most extreme I found it more like a doppelganger.

A journalist ends up in danger of sounding like an aid worker. For example, one told me he hoped that his reporting would help raise A?A?100,000 for the 2005 South Asia quake.

And you can see aid workers increasingly thinking like journalists. An aid worker I met out in Sri Lanka told me that he’d been visited by the media department of a British aid agency, who’d asked him to push all the beds in a hospital into one corner so it would look more overcrowded, and thus make more dramatic pictures.

Will this change with citizen journalism – the big story of the past couple of years?

Certainly, aid agencies have adapted to fight their corner, now they are no longer the automatic port of call for journalists’ case studies. They have turned to user-generated content sites to put up their own footage, photos and blogs as if they were citizen journalists themselves.

Type in Oxfam, CAFOD or the Red Cross on YouTube, MySpace or Facebook and a host of results come up.

Yet exposure on YouTube is still minute, compared to a slot on the Six O’Clock News.

Since the turn of the decade, aid agencies have begun turning their press offices into newsrooms, providing cash-strapped foreign desks with free copy and footage, a process that was led in this country by Christian Aid and Oxfam.

They pushed the idea of press officers as “fireman” reporters – not just facilitating media requests but attempting to influence the news agenda by writing and filming themselves. One senior BBC correspondent told me of sitting in a tiny restaurant in Darfur surrounded by five of the big agencies including Oxfam, World Food Programme and Save the Children all vying to offer more.

Last year as part of my research, I asked national newspapers, broadcasters and the leading aid agencies whether they used aid workers as reporters. A third of newspapers admitted that they had, although they were reluctant to talk about it. “Sometimes the lines are a bit blurred because former journalists go on to become aid workers,” one foreign editor said. “And they have gone there on a ‘for hire’ basis.”

Is there any problem with this?

Appearing on the comment pages, clearly labelled as aid workers is a long established practice. What is changing is aid workers appearing as writers on news and features pages. As Fiona Callister of CAFOD said, her press office sometimes provided features that went in national newspapers just re-bylined with the name of a staff feature writer. Christian Aid has seen pieces it has written appear in the Sunday Times, Express, Observer and Independent.

This has also spread to broadcast media. In a session on agencies and journalists I chaired at the Red Cross seminar Dispatches from Disaster Zones last month, there was a debate between Fran Unsworth, head of newsgathering at the BBC and Dominic Nutt of Save the Children about whether agency footage was credited. Unsworth stressed that it was BBC policy always to do so; Nutt said he had seen his own footage from Somalia appear uncredited.

This, it appears, was a one-off genuine mistake. But I have heard of other examples where broadcasters appear to have presented aid agency footage as their own.

Does it matter? Well, I believe viewers should be aware of the provenance of what they are watching. An agency may be doing a very good job – but if they’ve filmed themselves you are hardly going to get any other story.

Recent scandals over TV fakery probably mean any news editor would be more careful these days. Certainly, this week I have seen footage from Kenya labelled clearly as coming from Red Cross.

But if I had a New Year’s resolution for agencies and broadcasters it would be this: always do this, and ensure these lines between you are no longer blurred. Augmentin how much to take Buy valtrex online australia

2 Responses to “A new year’s resolution for aid agencies and broadcasters”

  • Unfortunately ‘Aid Agencies’ have a real dependence on journalists, journalists seem to have no real need for ‘Aid Agencies’. However if an ‘Aid Agency’ can be proven to be corrupt or perhaps proven to be even incompetent that is another story.
    In the world we now live nothing can be assumed to be true on face value, everything we view or read has been slanted in the favor of the information provider, to encapsulate the angle they believe needs to be exposed.
    It is a great shame that the areas surrounding Potuvil weren’t afforded the luxuries of other parts of the island post tsunami. But there is nothing new in the treatment of that area from the powers that be in the Western Province since the mid 70’s. It would seem that Arugam Bay will not be on the map until an airport has been built in Weerawila and a path through Yala is created.

  • ….and what might be the relevance of your post to Arugam Bay?
    Mr. SwissHits?
    Actually, without it being obvious, there is a relevance:
    The Bay has not been visited by any Real, honorable journalists since early 2005.
    Just a few came to see us a few weeks after our huge swell; most were too busy at the Light House in Galle at the time it really mattered.
    They came to report a bit of the (then pretty dated) aftermath.
    Ever since March 2005 or so many much better equipped teams descended on the Bay. In true sense. Often by helicopter.
    With high tech equipment, often PRETENDING to be journalists.
    All did, however admit when questioned, that they were public relations teams and highly paid production Companies.
    Such as Saathchi & Saathchi.
    Employed by the Red Cross, Mercy Corps, the Whimpy Opera and other fund raising organizations.
    What “reports” did they come up with?
    We, the suffering “Stars” of their shows, were left behind in the Bay, still sitting on heaps of rubble after 3 years can only guess what was shown and what was omitted….
    But we did see a footage or two from the US – and this is the reason why we are still here. And watchful. And a little active.
    At Arugam.info.
    To try to be a kind of citizen’s reporter. And redress the balance.
    Sadly our voice is as tiny as our funds.
    In sharp contrast to the ones we are facing.
    And who use huge funds up for purposes no donor would approve, if known.
    However, the end result is that they delivered the desired product.
    And the NGO’s still manage to fool the world with ‘Great achievements’ in ‘The Field’.

Leave a Reply