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Journalists and aid workers: new rules of engagement required?


Earlier this week an HPN/ALNAP/Reuters AlertNet event hosted at ODI addressed: ‘Can journalists and aid workers trust each other?’ The meeting brought together aid workers, journalists, donors and researchers to explore issues of accountability, trust and impact in an increasingly linked up world.

Aid workers have legitimate concerns about accuracy and depth in news coverage. They fear endangering lives if the ‘wrong’ news gets into the media. These days news spreads fast. Martyn Broughton, Editor of Reuters AlertNet, spoke of the reluctance to speak out:

‘Aid workers are much more aware of how people around them now have access to information. A militia leader may hold a PDA [a handheld computer] and see instantly what is being reported.’

For those involved in humanitarian assistance it is also a simple question of priorities – is it worth taking time out to talk to a journalist when the immediate focus is to help people?

Meanwhile in an increasingly competitive aid sector, journalists are wary of NGO spin – how robust is the data and who stands to gain? And they too have their own time pressures when feeding a hungry 24/7 global news machine.

Others at the meeting pointed out that local journalists are essential to better convey the context, culture and conditions on the ground. Both the media and aid workers are acutely aware of the growing impact of ‘citizen journalists’, swiftly online with their pictures and blogs – for good or ill.

At the event, amid mutual recognition of issues old and new, there were several recommendations and suggestions on ways to move things forward:

  • Invest in indigenous media development. Speaker David Pratt, foreign editor for Scotland’s Sunday Herald newspaper echoed views from the floor to suggest:
    ‘Empowering local media development would be an immense help to development. It is the way forward – the media industry is having to change where it looks for news.’
    Foreign desks are shrinking, resources are squeezed – it is hard for journalists to interest their editors in letting them cover foreign stories. Being sent along with an NGO, all expenses paid, doesn’t engender strong reporting… But as a member of the audience pointed out the challenge is to help implement these plans: how do you operationalise the development of local media?
  • End the cosy relationship between aid workers and media. Despite mutual suspicions Western coverage of aid work is overwhelmingly positive. Very good, as agencies depend on funding through donations. But a multi-billion dollar aid industry needs to be scrutinised by the media. Are agencies riding for a fall? Martyn Broughton, Editor of Reuters AlertNet, seemed to think so:
    ‘The media has a tendency to build something up and then cut it off at the knees. That could happen soon.’
  • The difference in roles and responsibilities of journalists and aid workers should be stressed. It is unwise for aid agencies to act as quasi-journalists or for journalists to embed themselves too snugly with NGOs. Impartiality and independence are key. As Jean-Michel Piedagnel, Executive Director, MSF UK said:
    ‘These days journalists are deployed more quickly than NGOs but they do different work. They don’t have the same objectives, agenda, or ethics and that will inevitably create tension.’
    Do you agree – or is a hybrid role a good thing? Aren’t they called press officers?
  • Is a new institutional structure required? David Pratt wondered if it was time to try and build a formal framework to bring aid agencies and the media together. This would propose standards and codes of practice to govern relationships and monitor progress. Sounds like a good idea – what would this look like and what do you think?

Martyn Broughton and Jean-Michel Piedagnel can be heard discussing the issues with John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today programme. HPN’s new podcast gives a flavour of the debate and features interviews with all three speakers. The full audio is also available online and Reuters coverage of the event can be found here.

See also the recent publication by Panos ‘At the heart of change’.

Information on the work of the BBC World Service Trust and media development can be found here.