Dear Journalist: What to look for (redux)

23 Nov

An addendum to the previous post.

This comment from Ansel (a.k.a. @mediahacker, is already making the rounds on twitter as “the comment of the year.” In the spirit of continuing a conversation, my brief thoughts in response. Ansel’s comment pasted in it’s entireity. My thoughts in italics:

In general, those are some fair points (not the same as saying that I agree 100%, but fair nonetheless).

Dear aid groups,

Do not invite us on one-day tours of your programs and expect them to be useful to us in any way. Do not bring out a single smiling hand-picked group of locals, who, of course, talk in gushing terms about everything you’ve done for them. You all do this constantly, and unfortunately, there are plenty of lazy journalists all too happy to be spoon-fed your bullshit.

J.: 1) Supply and demand. Get those lazy journalists you mention to stop being happy to be spoon-fed, and I’ll bet you an Heineken at the Port-au-Prince logs base that the happy propaganda goes away in relatively straightforward fashion.; 2) I don’t think I’ve ever been made aware of a journalist’s request for a longer than one-day tour. Usually it’s the opposite – they’re under deadlines to file 30 minutes from now and want soundbites.

We need to be able to come out to where you’re working unannounced and talk with you – your people in the field. Do not act like a corporation. You are not one. You’re not accountable to shareholders, you’re supposed to be accountable to the communities where you work and donors, who rely on journalists for information. Do not as policy refer us to your PIO spinmaster and refuse to talk to speak, on- or off-record. It’s highly suspicious.

J.: I suggest that you bone up on what, exactly, humanitarian accountability is. And… er.. when exactly did donors begin to rely on journalists for information? We report to our donors directly. Quite honestly this is a new one to me.

Let us talk to the supposed beneficiaries of your program, as well as local hires, without you hovering nearby. Go far far away until you can’t identify who’s talking with us.

J.: Go ahead. What’s stopping you? I frequently encounter journalists in the field talking to “my beneficiaries.”

As for the PIO spinmaster. Yep – I hear the frustration. Getting 5 meaningful minutes with an actual programs person must be very difficult. This is partially because our programs people are generally quite busy, uh, implementing programs. My advice would be to cultivate a good professional relationship with the PIO spinmasters over time, all the while asking specifically to speak with programs people (I’m a programs person and I speak to journalists often, on the record for my employer). Hang in there.

Do not send out press releases over and over simply listing off the sheer numbers of stuff you’ve distributed or have stocked in warehouses as if it indicates how much you’ve accomplished. Quality of life is not measured by those (nearly impossible to verify independently) numbers. One often has nothing to do with the other. More fodder for lazy journalists and crap that the serious ones have to swat away in search of something closer to truth.

J.: Totally agree. And we’re back to supply and demand. If you’ve been following this blog for very long you know that I am 100% in favor of more deeply educating the public (including the media) about what exactly it is that we do. But… when You (looking at New York Times, Huffington Post…) continue to give column inches to organizations like DAP who repeatedly make illogical demands for information that really isn’t useful information… well, that’s what get’s supplied.

The only way you will get us to stop pestering about how much money you’ve spent versus how much you raised to be completely open with your budget and how your projects/plans are funded. Do disclose your salaries and vacation packages.

J.: I do believe that day will come. Mostly. I’m honestly a bit baffled about the desire to know our salaries and benefits packages, though. a) US NGOs are already required to publish their form 990’s, so you at least know the salaries of the top execs. b) Really, what difference does it make? This is about impact, right? c) Why don’t you publish your salary? To the extent that journalists and aid workers both draw their salaries from the discretionary spending of “ordinary citizens”, and that we both supposedly perform services meant to serve the greater good, I’d say we’re both equally beholden to our donors (financial supporters, our shareholders, if you will). A little media transparency, please?

Do not try to get journalists kicked off mailing lists that contain meeting notes from clusters.

J.: Honestly, I’ve never heard of this happening. If this practice does exist (not saying you’re making it up), I’m with you – totally against it.

Do not always blame your problems on the government, while never speaking ill of any other NGO or the UN. Again, highly suspicious.

J.: Fair enough. Understand that not speaking ill of other aid providers is a tricky wicket for us. There’s definitely a “culture of nice” in the aid industry (drives me crazy). It’s also something of professional courtesy. Do you badmouth other journalists or outlets?  C’mon – publish what you really think of the abyssmally shallow CNN coverage of Haiti, or FOX News in general…

Do not claim, every time, that you are “rushing” to provide aid, as if in a never-ending cycle of emergency, when you know that the pace of operations has not really changed. You are not necessarily “urgently” or “swiftly” doing anything if every time you do something it is “urgent” or “swift.” It’s all the same. You are filing the same paperwork, using the same staff, with the same supplies, only there’s a new problem to deal with…

J. To the first part, absolutely fair. Makes me a nuts, too, for what it’s worth.  And again, if you’ve been following this blog for any time, you know that I would really love to see aid organizations and the Aid Industry overall really (REALLY) tell the straight-up total and honest truth about what we do and how we do it.

To the “it’s all the same” bit. Well, no, not really. My full-time day job is disaster response. Doesn’t mean, though, that each disaster is somehow not an emergency.

It’s late, I’ll stop there… Any answers?

22 Responses to “Dear Journalist: What to look for (redux)”

  1. c-sez 23 November, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    nice discussion and all, agree with 90% of it, just this one thing.

    >> Do not try to get journalists kicked off mailing lists that contain meeting notes from clusters.

    Let me give you a specific example that still pisses me off why sometimes journalists should get the fuck kicked off cluster mailing lists. Or, at least, stupid ones. In some circumstances.

    1. cholera epidemic breaks out
    1a. government tourism minister publicly denies problem exists
    2. mid and level health ministry officials of authoritarian government share numbers of cases & deaths and locations in cluster meeting
    3. cluster meeting discussions + minutes get facts to NGOs who need this intel. despite perceptions, we are not all knowing and everywhere, especially in countries without functioning independent media and millions of people
    4. journalist gets minutes and publishes OMG WTF CHOLERA story on alertnet using figures from cluster meeting
    5. to no one’s surprise who’s been in country more than a month, authoritarian government ministers crack a massive shit
    6. health ministry officials stop bringing field data, numbers, anything, to cluster meeting
    7. NGOs spend your money and time doing own nugatory assessments to figure out what’s going on, and no doubt some number of people avoidably suffer and die
    8. government fails to topple despite latest pinprick struck for transparency and democracy…. as with all the others for previous 20 years.

    grr. here endeth the rant.

  2. Michael Keizer 23 November, 2010 at 7:40 pm #

    Although I would agree to most of your responses, the ‘supply and demand’ ones are a bit weak. The fact that journalists don’t ask for things (or actively ask for the things that Ansel describes as wrong) does not mean that we cannot volunteer that ourselves. That includes more invitations for long-term observation and fewer for one-day happy clapping, keeping our distance when they interview recipients, and sending out press releases with attached more in-depth reporting about some of the complexities involved.

  3. Fyfee 23 November, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    Totally agree with Michael. The “get those lazy journalists you mention to stop being happy to be spoon-fed” seemed quite weak to me. That lazy journalists are happy to be spoon-fed, does not lessen the responsibility (or accountability) of those holding the spoon.

    “We report to our donors directly.” I think this is the point. The group with a vested interest in gaining the money, should not be the only group analysing the effectiveness of the spending. Certainly, the reports should still be made, and still be the most important, perhaps, but to assume that no-one else should be- or does- analyse aid organisations seems a bit dangerous to me.

    “Why don’t you publish your salary? To the extent that journalists and aid workers both draw their salaries from the discretionary spending of “ordinary citizens”, and that we both supposedly perform services meant to serve the greater good” Journalists receive their money from the advertising sold on their publication- very rarely through donations of goodwill. Further, journalists have- for the most part- no pledge or assumption than the money they receive (freelance) or their publication receives, is going anywhere but salaries and resources.

    J, I asked you a few posts back and you never replied, what are your degrees in- both undergrad and masters?

  4. Joe Turner 24 November, 2010 at 4:48 am #

    As the fabled third party who consumes the media and is a donor, can I just say that I’ve no interest in any of your individual salaries. Seems to me that is a straw man – consumers of news want good value news, donors want effective aid. End of.

  5. ansel 24 November, 2010 at 7:14 am #

    Wow, didn’t realize my comment would spark this. Thanks for your thoughtful response. But I would echo the points made above by Michael and Fyfee.

    Also, if you don’t think I openly criticize terrible journalists and media outlets or talk about how much money we make… you haven’t been reading my blog.

  6. MJ 24 November, 2010 at 7:30 am #

    Two points:

    1. Journalists in general (not all of them!) can be hypercritical w***ers in reporting things like salaries. On our behalf (ahem!) they hold politicians and other “celebrities” to ridiculously high standards the bed-hopping creeps would never live up to themselves.

    2. Beneficiary communities can be awfully fickle sometimes. Aid dependence etc can lead to them making ridiculous demands. So whilst in principle I am 100% in favour of allowing journalists unrestricted access. Unless they’re going to spend a week doing intensive field research (back to that 1 day visit malarkey) then I completely understand why any development agency or worker might be a little bit anxious about letting them roam around unchaperoned. How then a journalist can separate out the good from the completely dysfunctional is beyond me, unless they really invest the time…

  7. J. 24 November, 2010 at 8:23 am #

    C-cez, MJ: Probably no surprise to anyone that I’m agreeing with you.

    Michael/Fyfee/Ansel re: Spoon-feeding: I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Reporting directly to donors: Pretty much everyone I talk to agrees that there does need to be some kind of “third-party” entity to evaluate, monitor, etc. the effectiveness of aid programming and providers (although the term “regulation” tends to generate a lot of pushback). By contrast, I cannot seem to find two people with any real understanding of the issues who can agree on who or what that third-party should be. The media, generally, has repeatedly proven itself to be not up to the task (for the reasons touched on by C-cez and MJ, among many, many more). We have a conundrum.

    Salary: Whatever. Fyfee, if journalists really are the tools of corporate interest as you describe, then they need to get off their high horses about being anything at all other than entertainment. They’re not really about news, certainly not about facts or truth, and they’re absolutely in no position whatsoever to hold anyone else accountable.

    More to the point, salary is simply not an issue worth pursuing (agree with Joe, here). Everyone who’s not an aid worker seems to think that professional aid worker’s salaries are some nefarious secret. But there are many far more pressing concerns with the financial dimension of humanitarian aid (valuation of GIK, for example). Stop majoring in minors.

    Fyfee: Read the “about me” section of this blog like everyone else. And please update your “about me” page to include information about your education and experience.

    • Michael Keizer 24 November, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

      Michael/Fyfee/Ansel re: Spoon-feeding: I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree.

      Look at it from the other side. Many (not all) NGOs routinely offer journalists one-day trips and simplistic press releases in the clear hope that they will get a good (= positive, uncritical) write-up. That includes the type of DIY operations that you rightly criticise. Following your logic (demand -> supply), this would mean that positive, uncritical write-ups of those operations by journos are totally fine.

      Is that something you are comfortable with?

  8. Joe Turner 24 November, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    And can we stop this thing where we have to show each other what we’ve got in our underpants? I don’t much care what your qualifications are. I have two degrees in Soil Science and spend none of my time using them in any way whatsoever. What has that got to do with anything?

  9. Amelia 24 November, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    Ok, going to chuck a few thoughts in here. I liked your tough talkback Ansel and good points, well made.
    I am all for journalists talking to people in camps etcetera. Hey, I’ve learned new things by talking to our PR spin doctors, a.k.a our poor comms people. Some of the case studies (interviews) reveal interesting insights into what’s going on. And as J has pointed out programme people are a bit busy implementing. i’ve always done lots of interviews, though rarely with more than a day’s warning. I think you are being a bit harsh on the NGO comms people. They talk to the programming people all the time, in my experience, and are partially there to make sure that things are communicated clearly (I’m always being reminded to ditch the acronyms). I’ve got to say, at the same time, I don’t think journalists are all driven by the pure spirit of accountability, their editors are usually driven by ‘what makes news’. You have all read the news recently??? (sorry, cheap shot)

    And also I am not a believer in the myth that humanitarian work (unlike development) is not political. Hell, it is! When I have worked on child protection, it’s pretty damn political if children are being trafficked across borders due to corrupt border police… for example. And the effectiveness of one’s work is going to be influenced by the relationship with the government for good or ill. So, NGOs are right to be careful in their communications, that’s not the same as lacking in transparency.

    The question still comes back to, who’s qualified to judge? Do journalists really want or need to know the salaries of NGO workers? Why? Are they qualified to judge what would be a ‘fair’ amount? Is that their job? (Oh, and does that mean I can comment on journalists’ salaries?) I am quite quite sure that any story on NGO salaries would be entirely for the purpose of pointing out how the people of Haiti/Pakistan/Country X are suffering and those ‘fat cat’ NGO workers are earning good salaries… i.e: several thousand dollars a month. Let’s not be too disingenous here… people are reluctant to give out information that they know is likely to be twisted and used against them.

    I don’t come down any side of this fence. But from a practioner perspective I have to point out (J, you slightly avoided this problem) that frequently the senior management of my (recently ex) NGO didn’t understand the work, were not always able to evaluate the quality of it, and the perspectives of the children and communities, whilst valuable, were far from definitive in ‘assessing quality’. Could our programmes have been better? I sincerely hope so! Does that mean that they were ‘bad’? Not sure, and not sure that anyone else can tell either.

  10. Jon 24 November, 2010 at 5:22 pm #

    Let’s be clear about who are the real journalists here. Anyone worth their salt as a journalist would not complain about getting kicked off an email list or having NGO workers hovering nearby. That’s the nature of the game. Instead of relying on email lists for information — and posting those emails on your Web site — and going through NGOs for access, do your work.
    If you’re asking an NGO to see their programming, they have no obligation to spend more than a day with you — that’s generous. Go to that area on your own and talk to people there. Don’t rely on the NGOs. Any reporter who has come up through the ranks knows this. A 22-year-old “independent” with a camera and a Web site might not.

    • Joe Turner 25 November, 2010 at 6:02 am #

      Oh ok, there are ‘real’ journalists who stick microphones in the faces of people who are experiencing a life disaster, whereas the ‘pretend, sloppy’ journalists stop to ask the aid people what they’re doing and why. So what do you call all those journalists who embed themselves with military forces? Are they also unreal (or maybe undead)?

      I’ve not had a TV for years, primarily because I’m sick to the core of Real Journalists who make a career out of others picturesque suffering. And you can take that as a vote for Unreal Journalism every time.

    • ansel 25 November, 2010 at 6:12 am #

      Between J’s comment yesterday on the original post and Jon’s here, the contempt you guys have for independent – freelance, if you like – journalists is such a let-down. First I’m “self-styled,” now I’m not even a “real journalist.” Wait, maybe if I was 40-years-old instead of 22, you’d feel differently? Seriously, wtf.

      So Jon, show me your reporting from ‘real journalists’ that doesn’t rely on NGOs at all. You have to get some information from them so you at least compare what they’re claiming to do with what’s you observe on the ground – sometimes meeting notes are the only place where, in real-time, you can find it free of PR-speak. It’s one piece of the puzzle.

      Actually read my work if you don’t think I go and talk to communities directly.

      • J. 25 November, 2010 at 9:20 am #

        Really sucks when people who don’t know sh!t about your industry and who have no meaningful appreciation for what you actually do heap judgement on you, paint you with the same brush as the poseurs, and blame you for stuff that either isn’t your fault or just plain doesn’t matter, huh?

      • Jon 25 November, 2010 at 10:56 am #

        Perhaps if you toned down the sanctimony and focused on the gaps in your reporting — as opposed to using any electronic means possible to attack aid workers, journalists and anyone else you may not agree with — you’d win more respect.

  11. ansel 26 November, 2010 at 6:39 am #

    Jon, if you have an specific critique of my work, by all means email me or let me know. I’m all ears. But so far you’ve opted to attack me personally and offer nothing substantive.

    • Jon 29 November, 2010 at 9:02 pm #

      Do you really want to delve into specifics?
      For starters, let’s look at one example. In a story for IPS, you cited a CUNY study that “found that 40 percent of camps don’t have access to water and 30 percent have no toilets.”
      Did you not think it relevant to mention the fact that the researcher, Mark Schuller, was your roommate? Don’t you think the evaluation of such a damning statement should be made without bias?
      Did you get a second source that could say “yes, these numbers are accurate,” or did you just swallow them, and repeat them, hook line and sinker because the guy who lived in the next room told you they were true?
      That, my friend, is not journalism.
      Don’t you think a real journalist would steer clear of such obvious violations of conflicts of interest? Or does that not apply to you as an “independent” journalist?

      • ansel 23 December, 2010 at 4:48 am #

        Just now seeing this. Yes, let’s delve into specifics… But it is pretty damn creepy that some random commenter named ‘Jon’ on a blog thinks he knows who my roommates are. And there’s the little matter of Mark Schuller not ever being my roommate. I moved into his old apartment weeks after he’d mentioned to me that there’s an available room and left Haiti.

        So 1) you’re creepy and 2) you’re wrong.

        Got anything else?

      • ansel 23 December, 2010 at 5:07 am #

        Nvm, pretty sure I know who you are.

  12. CayesBorn 12 December, 2010 at 9:10 pm #

    What I want to know is what kind of douchebag calls himself/herself Mediahacker?


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