When I read a review of a hotel in the travel section of my favourite newspaper, the fact of who has paid for the accommodation is usually stated somewhere at the bottom: accommodation was provided by a travel company / the hotel, etc. In the Observer restaurant review, Jay Raynor pays for his food himself, and actively resists the freebies that might accrue from a chef desperate to curry favour. In refereed journals, published research should as a matter of course identify the funding which supported the work.
Different examples, but one common theme: I want to know whether the review I am reading might possibly be coloured by a complimentary bottle of Petrus or a freely-provided suite. And I especially want to know whether research that tells me how good ACME Cure-fast is for healing all ills has been funded by the ‘independent’ ACME Foundation for Encouraging Tame Researchers to Say What We Want Them To. The same applies to stories on the news: have they been ‘placed’ by a PR company, ‘spun’ by the spokesperson of a government department, and who has written the narrative – the journalist or someone else?
This week George Alagiah was presenting a number of pieces on South Sudan across the BBC news platforms. They were interesting and good reports. One was on maternal and child health care services, and the tragedy of the number of newborns who die within 24 hours of birth. The interviews with mothers who had recently lost their children were sensitively done for the most part.
But in this report, a few things stood out. The health clinic with whom the reporter was travelling was, we were told, supported by Save the Children. Save the Children logos on the clothes of those being filmed, and on the cars George and his team were travelling in, were prominent. The story was linked to a report and campaign being launched by the NGO, and its Chief Executive Justin Forsyth spoke from South Sudan to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.
Now of course, there is nothing wrong with this campaign, nor with its being reported. But it is a reminder of how many news stories across much of sub-Saharan Africa are driven (and the narrative shaped and controlled) by NGOs. This is by no means an egregious example – this is certainly not the mess of media reporting that was Goma in the late 1990s.
Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Save the Children, from ensuring its branding is on display, and being identified as the sole supporter of the hospital at Nimule, is in the driving seat. At one point it was reported that ‘according to Save the Children’, around 4,100 children die within their first 24 hours of life. But this isn’t a figure that comes from the NGO. It comes from WHO statistics. It may seem a rather petty thing to be concerned with, given the tragedy and horror that statistic points underscores, but surely responsible reporting should be going to the source (I would, for example, expect my students to go to the original source)
There is widespread concern that too many media stories are driven by NGOs who provide not only access, transport, and ‘facts’, but more worryingly, the narrative as well. Indeed, I have heard George Alagiah himself voice concern on this precise issue. This is not to say NGOs should not get their campaigns, findings or concerns on the news; nor that journalists should not engage with NGOs. But more care needs to be taken to both assert media independence and provide full transparency. Where reporters are given access via an NGO, use their transport, are taken to particular areas or facilities by an organisation, this needs to be clearly stated during the report. Surely no-one believes any more than just because the organisation is a humanitarian one, it is free from questions of self-interest in the shaping of narratives?
NGOs have private interests, as much as altruistic humanitarian objectives. Just as we should be careful of the PR experts who spin government stories, and rightly mock the shambles of Mastercard’s PR company trying to dictate what journalists should say in return for tickets to the Brits, we also need the media to ensure full and open independence from even those organisations whose humanitarian motives would seem to be honourable and decent. Above all, let’s not forget that NGOs have increasing numbers of very professional, very skilled PR teams whose job is to raise the profile of the organisation and its campaigns. And the job of journalists should be to make use of, but not be driven by, those PR teams, no matter what kind of organisation they work for.