A problem with NGOs as sources

An interesting post by the Columbia Journalism Review about the tendency of Western journalists to heavily rely on NGOs for information.

Western journalists, for their part, tend to be far too trusting of aid officials, according to veteran Dutch correspondent Linda Polman. In her book The Crisis Caravan, she cites as one example the willingness of journalists to be guided around NGO-run refugee camps without asking tough questions about possible corruption or the need for such facilities. She writes, “Aid organizations are businesses dressed up like Mother Teresa, but that’s not how reporters see them.”

Time constraints and a lack of knowledge are generally the reasons why journalists rely on NGOs for information. With less and less money devoted to investigative journalism at all levels (local, domestic and foreign) and with more and more pressure for journalists to become backpack journalists, it’s obvious that something that has to give.

I’ve already touched on the current lack of area expertise, but it’s becoming more apparent that not specializing in something leads to lackluster journalism. We’ve all seen that recently with the nuclear situation in Japan.

The CJR post focuses more on the issue that NGOs can, and do, inflate numbers or situations for more press and that journalists should be more aware. It’s a great point to make, especially for Africa.

But instead of promoting niche journalism, CJR offers another suggestion:

Even with shrinking resources, journalists can do better than this. For a start, they can stop depending so heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories, and sources. They can also educate themselves on how to find and interpret data available from independent sources. And they can actively seek out stories that deviate from existing story lines.

Good advice, but it’s still a Band-aid solution.


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