Archive for July, 2008

Who should judge if a charity has done a good job?

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Selective and misrepresentative media coverage has led the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the body that co-ordinates a dozen international humanitarian charities, to decide not to evaluate the overall success of these charities on the ground (according to today’s FT). DEC made this decision “due to the increasing tendency for the media to report evaluations selectively and take criticisms out of context” (Brendan Gormley quoted in the FT).

It’s easy to see why Gormley and others should take media coverage so seriously. A couple of months ago The Times reported that, following the significant amount of footage of the earthquake in China and the access given to domestic and foreign journalists to cover the disaster, over $900m was raised in aid. By contrast, despite a death toll nearly twice as high, and similarly awful destruction and suffering, Burma received only about $55m in aid.

Most aid agencies – and The Times article – linked the level of fundraising directly to the amount of media coverage. There were stories every night on the news from China, yet hardly any footage from Burma. As Mark Astarita from the British Red Cross said at the time, “At the end of the day, charitable giving doesn’t necessarily follow the need. Disaster fundraising follows the news agenda”.

So media coverage matters. And that includes coverage of the charities’ performance. Therefore if an independent report makes criticisms of their performance – as did a 2004 study of the way charities dealt with the 2002 drought in southern African – and the media pick up on those criticisms, then those charities receive less funding. Or so they believe.

This has led DEC to look ‘for new ways to ensure accountability’. Or, to be less euphemistic, to be less comprehensive in its post-appeal evaluations, relying on occasional reviews. And even with these not guaranteeing they will be made public.

But if the charities do not audit their own performance, who will? Journalists sometimes like to assess the way charities do their job, or where their money goes. But these assessments tend to be either unduly critical – ‘look how this money is being mis-spent!’ (e.g. see ‘Myanmar cyclone: Drug lord crony will profit’), or unduly uncritical – i.e. simply appeals for more funding (e.g. ‘Give disaster appeals a life’). Few journalists have either the time or the resources to monitor the work of a charity over a long period.

Perhaps the answer is for charities themselves to do less auditing and more reporting. As I argued in a previous post, if charities adopted some of the values of journalism and began reporting regularly on what they were doing – and this is reporting I’m talking about, not PR – then they couldn’t help but talk more honestly about the successes and failures on the ground.

Some charity heads will still complain that any self-criticism will be leapt on by journalists looking for fault, but at least it gives charities more control of the story, it enhances their commitment to transparency, and provides them with a defensible position should they need it.

Written by Martin Moore

July 8th, 2008 at 5:12 pm

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Does Welsh news matter?

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Is “‘Three Welsh politicians ‘raped’” a big news story? The BBC thinks so. It’s been one of its top stories all day. On its front page the BBC reports that ‘Three members of the Welsh assembly have disclosed… that they have been raped’, though none of them reported it.

And yet the BBC seems almost alone in reporting it. As yet, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail have all chosen not even to mention it on their sites.

Perhaps because the news was released to coincide with the launch of an Amnesty / NUS campaign about violence against women, and hard-bitten newspaper hacks felt they were being bounced into the story.

But perhaps also because much of mainstream media seems to take virtually no notice of Wales or what goes on there. No national newspaper – except the News of the World (yes, really) – has a correspondent based in Wales. Neither does Sky (based in Bristol).

Last year there was almost no coverage of the Welsh Assembly elections or their aftermath. The Institute for Welsh Affairs studied the national press and found more coverage of the slaughter of Shambo, the sacred bull, than of the formation of the new Assembly goverment (report here). The Sun contained all of 13 words (and that was 13 words more than many other papers).

Does this matter? To people in Wales yes. They genuinely lack enough political information on which to make democratic choices (hell, if you’re Welsh and read the FT you’d have thought you quit smoking two months too early – the paper reported the ban started in July ’07 when it actually started in May).

But also to the rest of us. Even ignoring the lack of political understanding we now have of Wales, when a big story breaks we’re fed masses of inaccurate, misleading, cliched reporting – as happened in Bridgend.

Written by Martin Moore

July 2nd, 2008 at 11:54 am

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