Global Policy Forum

How the Media's Codes and Rules Influence the Way NGOs Work


By Simon Cottle and David Nolan

November 16, 2009


The practices and priorities of global reporting play a key role in determining whether humanitarian emergencies are routinely covered in the news, sensationalized as spectacular media events, or simply buried along with countless imageless victims in "forgotten emergencies" and "hidden wars." Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that, in a competitive media environment informed by the pursuit of readers, ratings and revenue, the media spotlight is drawn selectively to images of distress rather than issues of structural disadvantage, and is apt to roam quickly from one disaster or emergency to another. Such fleeting coverage, at best, generally provides sparse context or historical background and even less follow-up coverage of post-conflict or post-emergency communities or longer term processes of development. In these respects, the news media lens is peculiarly insensitive to the distant suffering of others. Further, based on geo-political outlooks and historical legacy, it is apt to see through a prism of Western ethnocentrism and interests now normalized within a professional "calculus of death." When approached through this news outlook, death, destruction and disaster in remote locations are seemingly less newsworthy than those closer to home. While this much is generally known and has been documented by research, it is not the whole story.

Humanitarian organizations today co-exist and compete for media attention and donor funds within an increasingly crowded humanitarian aid field. They also confront new forms of humanitarian crises in addition to the permanent emergency of global poverty. This includes so-called "new wars" that deliberately target civilian populations and infrastructure; the military use of starvation and systematic terror; and the increased numbers of internally displaced people, refugees and the victims of climate change and other emergent global threats such as global pandemics, food and water shortages, and energy crises. Military interventions conducted under the name of "military humanism" and NGO involvement in military imposed governance pose challenges to traditional notions of NGO independence, principles and practices. In the post 9/11 political environment and the ensuing global "war on terror," NGOs have also had to renegotiate their position, practices and even their principles when conducting their work in occupied territories and/or in response to new agendas of human security and normative discourses of human rights.

At the same time, the world ecology of news now plugged into and plied by the world-wide web is also fast complexifying and changing. Global news corporations (CNNI, BBC World, Fox), the rise of new regional news formations and proliferating local to global news services and 24/7 "real-time" news all present new opportunities, as well as new challenges, for NGOs seeking to publicize their work and pursue their aims in an increasingly competitive, commercialized and accelerating news environment. Increased capacity for "global surveillance" and the "transformation of visibility" brought about by this global communications network has also contributed to a discernible increase in the news media's proclivity for scandals, a phenomenon that can prove disastrous for the public reputations of NGOs and their capacity to raise donations and carry out their humanitarian work.

But the rapidly changing communications environment, including local-global, interactive and transnational flows and networks, also provides NGOs with new communications opportunities. NGOs can tailor new communication technologies (mobile telephony, videophones, satellite linkups, the internet and networked coordination, communication and information systems) to their needs and requirements both in the field and in their communication with their different stakeholders - including publics, donors, governments, workers and supporters, other NGOs and those in need. It is at the intersection of these developments - in this evolving and increasingly globalized and contested communicative space - that the interaction between NGOs desperate to raise awareness and public funds for their humanitarian work and the news media determined to generate readers, ratings and revenue is now conducted.

Against this backdrop, this paper observes a number of more proximate findings based on a recent study of prominent humanitarian NGOs and their interaction with mainstream news media. It reflects on how these interactions are informed by relations of communicative power and how this impacts NGO claims, and capacity, to promote humanitarianism around the globe. NGOs have become increasingly embroiled within a "media logic" that is far removed from the ideals and aims of humanitarianism. This is demonstrated in how aid NGOs seek to "brand" their organizations in the media in response to an increasingly crowded, competitive and media-hungry field; how they pitch and package stories in ways designed to appeal to known media interests, deploying celebrity and publicity events; how they regionalize and personalize media coverage of humanitarian work in the field, marginalizing if not occluding local relief efforts and the role of survivors; and also how they expend valuable time, resources and energy to safeguard their organizational reputations and credibility against the risks of media-led scandals.

In order to better understand these interrelated developments we need to look behind the mediated scenes of disasters and human suffering subject to detailed analysis and critique elsewhere and explore more sociologically the field of aid organizations and their communication strategies in interaction with the media. This discussion is based on the help of communications managers and media officers working in six leading aid NGOs: the International Committee of the Red Cross, Save the Children, Oxfam, CARE, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and World Vision.

NGO branding and the crowded aid-NGO field

The increasingly crowded NGO aid field produces a situation where more organizations are now chasing public and government funds. The crowded field of NGOs also generates a sense of competition which in turn leads to the pursuit of organizational profile in the media. This profile can more readily be termed a market "brand" in so far as the NGO purposefully deploys associations, meanings and values to distinguish itself from its nearest competitors in the media marketplace. The use of the word "brand" has itself become part of the lexicon that aid agencies now use to describe themselves and their activities; the use of this word tells us something about the extent to which NGOs have incorporated the models and principles of corporate promotion and marketing into their communications practice.

We do want to get awareness of the organization out there as much as possible, we want to get brand awareness... (Communications Manager, MSF Australia)

So-called "brand awareness," by definition, seeks to differentiate the public's awareness of particular organizations. While MSF has often traded on the uncompromising idealism of its youthful volunteers delivering vital medical assistance in the field, the Red Cross deliberately seeks to promote its established 'reputable brand' identity which is now thought to be under threat from the proliferating agencies which are prepared to usurp its standing as an authoritative media source. In the context of today's 24/7 news environment, some journalists may not necessarily wait for considered, accurately sourced and verified statements.

In this media dependent and competitive NGO environment, NGOs have necessarily become increasingly concerned with promoting and protecting their brand and warding off potential media criticism:

As far as I'm concerned, that's the role of the media officer to have to try and find out what they (the media) are going to do and offset any potential risk to the brand and the people that we work with and the way they're represented. (National Media Coordinator, Oxfam Australia)

How aid organizations respond to the need for media profile is not confined to considerations of branding, however, it also informs their strategic use of communications and how they facilitate media access to the field.

Packaging media reports and facilitating the field

Aid organizations know exactly what the media require and incorporate this into their professional practice and communications strategies. Packaging information and images in conformity to the media's known predilections has now become institutionalized inside aid agencies, whether this means putting a number on death tolls, featuring celebrities or "making it visual" because "nothing sells a story like a good picture." An Oxfam communications manager states, similarly, "our strategy is geared towards fulfilling the needs of the media and offering them what they are looking for, in as simple and 'easy-to-use' way as possible" (Communications Manager Oxfam Australia).

In addition to pitching and packaging stories in conformity to known media needs, aid NGOs also seek to "facilitate the field" by arranging journalist access to their field delegates and remote locations. The advantages of "facilitating the field" at different stages of the emergency cycle are generally recognized by NGOs and can be conceived in terms of "beneficent embedding".

At least in the initial emergency phase of the operation, there is this sense they need us as much as we need them and I think the global media organizations will often work with the likes of the Red Cross...We've met many journalists that we had to have bedded down if you like, literally bedded down with Red Cross workers in conflict situations and they understood the role of the Red Cross much better than most. (International Communications Officer, Australian Red Cross)

However, media field trips, according to NGO representatives, are becoming increasingly rare, not least because of the costs involved and the decline in foreign news and correspondents. More routinely, aid agencies now seek to capture the media spotlight by other means - if only fleetingly.

HIV and AIDS: nobody really wants to write or talk about that and unfortunately the only time that you can try and pitch those kinds of issues is either by a natural disaster or specific days in the year, like 'world disaster reduction day' or 'HIV and AIDS day,' where we know generally the media will have some leniency in terms of allowing a story or two to appear about that...In a way it's a compromise, but the bottom line is we really have to be realistic. (National Communications Manager, Australian Red Cross)

While "event days" are designed to deliberately chime with the "event orientation of news", there is no guarantee that the media will always run with these stories. Some NGOs now detect a growing media reluctance to report such NGO "pseudo events."A further strategy to capture media interest is to make use of celebrity, a known predilection of today's media culture. This can become tactically deployed in some NGO communications strategies.

I think some media outlets just won't run some stories...then perhaps you get a Cate Blanchett or someone to go in there and advocate on behalf of it. So if it's a female genital mutilation or something that some outlets are going to cringe at, you do it through a celebrity possibly. So we have different ways to do it, and that's all about the mix and packaging. (Communications Manager, MSF Australia)

In the globally competitive, cost-cutting media environment where broadcasters and newspapers are increasingly reluctant to support correspondents in the field, event days and celebrity, then, are used tactically to try and prise open the stubborn gates of media attention. However, these tactics are already shaped by the news media culture, and some may question their fleeting and shallow representations.

Regionalizing 'global' humanitarianism

In addition to celebrity, there are other statuses and hierarchies at play in the global universe of NGO-media interactions that are significant in shaping humanitarian media coverage.

The peak of coverage about the Sudan crisis back in 2004 followed a BBC report. It was only then actually that the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, decided to visit the area as well as Colin Powell. And that then created an opportunity for us to cover that. But it was all very much driven by one single report coming out of the BBC which was then obviously replicated here. So that is one element of media globalization, I think, which includes reducing resources of media organizations which means that they don't have as many correspondents as they used to have in every part of the world so they're relying on global media networks such as CNN, BBC or wire services such as Reuters and AFP to pick up on the stories and then run them. (National Communications Manager, Australian Red Cross)

Evidently a global media hierarchy, as well as global elite figures, can prompt responses from nationally-based media as in the instance of Darfur, Sudan. While the debate about the capacity of the global media to galvanize political and policy responses - the so-called "CNN effect" - rolls on, there is little doubt that national news media often take their cue from world news services. In the field of humanitarian emergencies and relief operations these act as powerful agenda-setters, periodically cascading reports of humanitarian disasters down through national media networks.

Powerful regionalizing (and personalizing) forces are also at work in the reporting of humanitarian issues and distant suffering. Reaffirming the underlying geo-political parameters of selective news interests, the news media seek out, and for the most part NGOs happily render up, stories and personnel that regionalize and "bring back home" the relevance and cultural proximity of the events portrayed. Australian NGOs describe, for example, how the media routinely request and receive "regionalized" material for their media reports.

In 90 percent of the cases the media will want to talk to us as long as we have an Australian person involved in any shape or form. If we don't have that, it's becoming increasingly difficult to portray something which is in any case probably remote to the Australian public if we are talking about places in the Middle East or in Africa or in former Soviet Republics. If there is a genuine crisis happening for instance in Chechnya and you want to talk about it, no matter how good a story it is, if there is no Australian angle you can almost forget it. (National Communications Manager, Australian Red Cross)

All the NGOs interviewed spoke about this regional media emphasis with its pursuit of "home" connections in disaster reporting and all now deliberately incorporate this approach into their communication strategies, including how they forefront their own nationals in media coverage.

So it's very much about responding to disasters and crises as well as trying to raise the profile through the media of the work of Australian Red Cross and the wider Red Cross Red Crescents movements and there are many ways for us to do that but primarily we try and focus on the work of our Red Cross delegates, the delegates that work with the International Red Cross overseas. They're the stars of our organization in many ways and usually our best bet in securing media coverage, you know, 'A local hero from your neighborhood is now working in a disaster zone or conflict zone.' (International Communications Officer, Australian Red Cross)

This media logic, now assimilated by NGOs, that regionalizes and "brings back home" reports from global disaster zones by finding local personnel and accounts has implications for ideas of global humanitarianism. When we are invited to see the world of disasters and human need through a mediated national prism that splinters the category of global humanity into "us" and "them," "nationals" and "foreigners," "active saviors" and "passive victims," the active agency of indigenous aid workers (and survivors) is minimized, and a Western-led and Western-centric view of humanitarianism is reinforced. Arguably this does little to sustain the "proper distance" required in our mediated interrelationships with others and necessary for "a duty of care, obligation and responsibility, as well as understanding."

Risk, reputation, and mediated scandals

NGO reputation, based on public trust and an organization's credibility, is a bankable currency in the competitive field of humanitarian NGOs where each is dependent on public (and government) good will and donations for the continuance of its humanitarian work. In recent years humanitarian NGOs have become increasingly sensitive to the media's tendency to pursue scandals and therefore seek as matter of course to 'offset any potential risk to the brand' (National Media Coordinator, Oxfam Australia).

Mediated scandals have long been associated with politicians, celebrities, and even the moral violations committed by ordinary people, but recently they have encroached on such formerly "sacred" and "inviolable" institutions as the church and now humanitarian aid agencies. A number of mediated scandals have recently rocked the humanitarian aid sector, including the high profile UN Oil-for-Food program debacle and allegations of UN peacekeepers involved in sexual misconduct in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Liberia. Both the Red Cross and MSF have also become embroiled in scandals, the former for allegations of mishandling public donations following the Bali bombing in 2004 and the latter following media claims that MSF had asked the public to cease giving donations for relief in the tsunami of 2004. Whether based on misconduct or misunderstanding, the claims and counter-claims that swirl in the media sphere can cause massive damage to that prized asset of high profile aid organizations: public reputation.

In the context of the 2004 tsunami, for example, aid agencies predicted that the media would inevitably have high expectations that emergency relief, following the unprecedented wave of public donations, would result in tangible improvements such as new housing in the short-to medium term, an expectation that was always going to be unattainable given the scale of devastation involved. Aid organizations managed to proactively head off this likely media response by collectively reinforcing the dimensions of the problem and the necessary time-scale involved.

If you look at the tsunami case it was going to be such a competitive field and the media would be overtly critical of aid agency's responses, so we needed to have a proactive strategy instead of just hoping for the best because we've invested so much and people have given so much to us and we don't want that jeopardized by a bad media report or just omission of us as a main player. (National Media Coordinator, Oxfam Australia)

This concern with possible media misrepresentation has led some agencies to stipulate that they will now only allow their key personnel to be interviewed live, thus minimizing the possibilities that post-interview editing and packaging will misconstrue their words and messages. Aid agencies reflexively respond to this latest "media logic", which pursues scandals, with communication strategies deliberately aimed at safeguarding their brand and minimizing the risks of unfavorable publicity. Once placed in the media sphere, negative claims can continue to circulate and live on in public memory - or perhaps, more importantly, journalistic memory - becoming recycled in new scandals. The pursuit of scandals, then, has become an inextricable part of today's media environment and informs the media's selective focus on humanitarian disasters.

I think the key fundamental change in aid strategies today is that we are aware that we are 100% open to scrutiny...In the past you could entertain the idea that the media are there to report on a certain event or issue, whatever it is, and to cover the work of aid organizations and that it will always be a feel-good story. That is no longer the case and this is something we are rapidly beginning to understand. We make sure that whatever we do with the media we have completely covered the risk elements...that we go consciously into an agreement with a media outlet knowing that they may turn on us, and that we have prepared strategies to deal with that. (National Communications Manager, Australian Red Cross)

The contemporary field of humanitarian NGOs, then, is characterized by risk, reputation, and a media logic now disposed to mediated scandals. In this context NGOs find themselves obligated to respond in ways that are designed to "protect the brand" through professionalized communication strategies.


Against the changing global backdrop of humanitarianism, this discussion, based on insider testimonies from some of the major humanitarian aid agencies, has sought to sketch NGOs' continuing relationship of dependency on the news media as well as how this dependency increasingly insinuates its "media logic" inside NGO communication practices and strategies. This includes, as we have heard, the deliberate pursuit of media space to promote "organizational brands" in the crowded media marketplace; the pitching and packaging of stories in conformity to the known dispositions of target media outlets, the general event orientation of news, and the media's penchant for celebrity; the regionalized (and personalized) inflection of humanitarian disasters; and the reflexive responses to the heightened risks of media scandal. In all these interrelated respects, then, humanitarian aid organizations are now working within, not simply sourcing, today's global news media. While new communication technologies and collective NGO campaigns are providing the possibility for NGOS to reconfigure (or simply bypass) mainstream news media and their relations of communicative power, for now, NGOs remain dependent on mainstream news media, with a significant impact on how this infiltrates and influences the communicative relations of power now conducted in the global age.

To conclude, therefore, this paper is not arguing that today's media logic has comprehensively colonized the world of humanitarian agencies including the invaluable work that is undertaken in the field or even on the home front; there is more to humanitarianism than its idealization and projected image within media discourse or promotion through NGO communication strategies. And, if we look hard enough, we can find a few positive developments or even resistances to the dominant media logic documented above. These include: "beneficent embedding," our term for the in-depth (though increasingly rare) reporting based on journalist immersion in the field; the increased use of the Internet and other mediums by NGOs to communicate directly to donors and publics; the enhanced capacity of NGO field operatives to deliver eye-witness and authoritative accounts direct to world audiences via the latest communications technologies; the emergence of humanitarian resources such as Reuters' AlertNet and the United Nations' ReliefWeb and other web-based services collating and disseminating accessible, up-to-date information and background on forgotten humanitarian crises around the world. Furthermore, more proactive NGO collaborations that mobilize collective resources and maximize impact on the media in respect of major world issues and concerns, such as the hugely successful Make Poverty History campaign, also suggest that it may occasionally be possible for humanitarian organizations to lead, rather than follow, prevailing "media logic." These and other developments in the humanitarian-media field, then, all demand further research and possibly provide some grounds for optimism as well as strategic innovation in the future. Even so, they do not mitigate the general findings and observations documented above and which point to how today pervasive media logic has become incorporated into the communication practices of humanitarian NGOs.


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