Having aid agencies fund journalists is the worst idea ever for aid journalism but it’s not that surprising that *The Guardian* is down with it
Yesterday, The Guardian’s Global Development blog highlighted reporting by Liberian journalist Mae Azango on female genital cutting (FGC), which has prodded the government in her native country into trying to end the practice. The blog post also notes that hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars have been spent by aid agencies in West Africa to oppose FGC, “but Azango’s reporting, which cost about $1,000, achieved as much as or more than all the other efforts.”
“By not supporting journalists,” says the post’s sub-head, “aid agencies are severely limiting their access to the truth about what is happening in developing countries and, therefore, their ability to make a difference.”
But unless the goal is to spawn aid propaganda, having aid agencies support either local or foreign journalists—which already happens indirectly—is an awful idea. Contrary to the post’s reasoning, it’s more likely to limit access to the truth than liberate it.
Aid agencies already fund a good deal of journalism indirectly. Aid groups and NGOs have infrastructure—free rides in SUVs, in-country networks, convenient internet and Coca-Cola access—and local knowledge that many are all too willing to serve up to reporters like Paula Deen does fried cheesecake to her husband. Choosing to accept the freebies probably wouldn’t fly on many questions on an undergrad journalism ethics exam. Maybe any access is better than none, and it’s true that facilitating journalists’ visits doesn’t guarantee positive coverage. But part of an aid reporter’s job is to analyze and sift through whatever information an NGO offers up and then use other sources and methods and your critically-thinking brain to try to get the whole picture. This automatically becomes harder, either subconsciously when the NGO is giving you stuff or consciously when you’re being led around by the hand by a communications director on a site visit, once you compromise a little bit of independence.
A dilemma the blog post brings up is that local journalists in Africa are often paid really really badly relative to what they could make spouting advertisements as an aid group communications person. After her FGC reporting was widely-read, Azango started to receive offers from the aid world to do P.R. Another Liberian journalist mentioned in the post left a radio reporting job to work for the U.N. making 16 times her previous salary. “Journalism is not seen as a viable long-term career,” says the Guardian post, “but a stepping stone to a better job, often in the aid world.”
This is a perpetual issue in Haiti too, where talented local journalists often jump ship to do P.R. for NGOs or aid agencies or the government. Or even worse, they do both simultaneously, an obvious conflict of interest.
On Wednesday, I taught a journalism class for 16 Haitian students at a film and journalism school run by a small Dutch NGO. We talked about ethics, and I offered up a few clear conflict of interest hypotheticals. One example: you work for Le Nouvelliste; your cousin who works for the Haitian Red Cross offers you oodles of money to do P.R. for them three days a week; what do you do? There was some good fiery debate, but about half the class had few qualms about doing both jobs and keeping mum about it. A common refrain among that half was that their allegiance was to help the country first and foremost, so they would be able to rise above the conflicts and family ties, even in the event of, say, a massive fraud at the Red Cross.
Basically, for some of these students and for many local journalists in Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa, money talks loudly. As it should—it talks pretty loudly for most people, and when you have a shot to double or quadrouple or maybe even just scratch out the average income in Haiti or Liberia, you’d have to be a little fiscally incompetent or at least really really dedicated not to be tempted to compromise a little, let alone to hold out altogether.
So what to do? The coziness between western journalists and aid groups has been a topic of lamentation recently, and with the way journalism is changing everywhere, it’s difficult for many American let alone Haitian outfits to rely on for-profit business models.
A proliferation of non-profit international journalism, for both foreign and local journalists, might be a viable model—just don’t have aid agencies be the donors. A mix of donor funding and advertising revenue is pretty much the Global Post’s model, I believe. By having western journalists stationed around the world, the outlet can avoid many of the problems with parachute journalism—lack of local knowledge, lack of language skills, uncritical reliance on NGOs for transport and access.
And when it comes to funding local journalism, relationships like the one between Global Voices and Harvard and Reuters show that it’s possible to locate talented and dedicated local journalists and bloggers, and it at the least suggests the sort of entities that might be interested in funding reporting by locals in Africa, Haiti, and elsewhere.
The Global Development blog itself is supported by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I know next to nothing about that relationship or its potential effect on the outlet’s reporting, but The Guardian at least gets the idea behind non-profit models of journalism being part of the future. But when you call for NGOs and aid groups to fund journalists directly as the post does, you’re not foretelling the future of aid journalism, you’re calling for more aid P.R.