Archive for the ‘reporting’ tag

Oxford study points the way ahead for foreign correspondence

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This post was first published at mediastandardstrust.org on 10th December 2010

Richard Sambrook’s report – ‘Are foreign correspondents redundant?’, published this week by the Reuters Institute in Oxford, is a road map for news organisations and journalists who want to navigate the future of foreign news

The news popped into my twitter feed between 8 and 9pm on Wednesday evening. ‘#wikileaks hackers have brought down visa.com’. Wow! was my first reaction, that sounds important. Is it true? – was my second thought. A quick attempt to log into visa.com suggested it might be. If it is, what does it mean? – was my third response. Visa’s corporate website was down but did that mean I couldn’t make visa transactions? If I tried to make a visa transaction – say to pay for that basket of Amazon Christmas presents I’d just filled – was there a danger my card details would be lost, or stolen?

I relate this experience not to give a glimpse of how I spend Wednesday evenings and my various neuroses, but because it captures – in microcosm – the challenges facing journalism today, especially international journalism.

News travels fast. Very fast. Normally now in headlines of fewer than 140 characters. The race to be first – which used to be won by journalists and news organisations – is now won by whoever is closest to the action and has the fastest opposable thumbs. That may be a journalist but chances are, especially with international news, it might not be.

News can come from anyone, anywhere. The first tweet I saw about visa.com was not from someone I knew (it had been re-tweeted). Hence why I wasn’t sure about its veracity. Here the journalist can help (though they first have to overcome the urge to re-tweet without verifying).

And news initially tends to come unencumbered by context or explanation. It comes as a bald statement of fact. Visa.com has shut down. North Korea has just fired rockets at South Korea. The first Chilean miner is out. The journalist then has to work out what this means and explain its importance to his/her audience.

Speed. Verification. Context.

But if news organisations are losing the race to be first, in international news they also risk losing their lead doing the second and third.

This struck me reading Richard Sambrook’s excellent study, published this week, on the future of foreign correspondence.

To be able to verify something quickly you have to have some background knowledge. If possible you should have been on the ground (wherever the ground is) for a decent length of time so you can not only verify something but establish its importance and set it in context. This is hard to do from a standing start.

As Sambrook writes: ‘There are no substitutes for a prolonged process of first hand engagement to understand and report what is being witnessed. This may be the most valuable element of foreign reporting at risk from the changes underway.’

It is at risk because there are fewer staff foreign correspondents on the ground. Many news organisations have scaled back or removed their foreign desks. And most have closed or reduced their foreign bureaux.

This is not to say this is the only way to do foreign news coverage. There are alternatives to having your own staff on the ground, as Sambrook indicates. Technology now provides enormous potential for new methods of news gathering, and provides access to a much greater number of news sources.

The report cites a number of people and organisations who have taken up this potential, for example Global Voices, which ‘surfaces opinion and reporting in blogs around the world’; Demotix, a sort of 21st century international picture agency; and Ushahidi, a distributed mapping platform started from Kenya. Even the Foreign Office, not necessarily known for online innovation, has experimented with news aggregation and discussion. For the G20 meeting in London the FCO ‘built a website offering information in 40 languages but also decided to make it a digital hub to aggregate content and discussion about the summit’s themes’.

Yet ‘[i]t is notable’, Sambrook writes, ‘that most of this innovation comes from new start-ups rather than from within established media organisations’. Philip Balboni, CEO of Global Post, puts it more brutally: ‘The innovation in journalism is pathetic’.

Indeed, despite the opportunity to provide more international news, more cheaply than ever, before many mainstream UK and US news organisations are reducing their international coverage. The Media Standards Trust report published last month – Shrinking World – showed how coverage of international news in the UK print press (4 newspapers) has dropped by 40% since 1979. This is in the context of newspaper pagination exploding over the same period.

This is a shame because these organisations have the experience, the people, and the motivation to innovate, as we suggest in our report.

Still, Sambrook’s report not only provides a perspective on where international news has come from, it also points the way to where it could go. The question is, will news organisations read it and take action?

Written by Martin Moore

December 17th, 2010 at 12:58 pm

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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PR, journalism and reliable reporting

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The PR vs Journalism debate continues tomorrow – this time at the Westminster Media Forum. Lord Fowler and Baroness Howe are chairing – fresh from the Select Committee on Communications that just published its report on Friday. Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, will open by painting a scary and depressing picture of the reliance of contemporary journalism on PR (I’m guessing – based on his description of the situation in Flat Earth News – he could of course paint a very different picture).

I’m appearing on one of the panels along with Mark Borkowski, Willam Gore and James Doherty, talking about what – if anything – can be done “to ensure good standards of reliability in reporting”.

Without reprising much of the background to this debate (for which you can read about – or even listen to – the PR/Journalism event we held back in April) I’m going to suggest three things (given I’ll only have 3 minutes):

1. We don’t need more regulation. As with regulation of the press, it’s difficult to see how the benefits of regulating PR would outweigh the damage it could do. Except in extreme cases – such as financial insider trading information – where there are already regulatory and self-regulatory measures in place, it’s hard to see how greater policing and surveillance by the government would be a better cure than exposure in the press.

2. We do need more transparency. When the number of people working in public relations in Britain surpasses the number of journalists (as happened recently according to Nick Davies), and when the line between PR material and journalism – especially online – becomes blurred to the point of invisibility, then it’s clear we need to know more about the information we’re consuming so we can judge it better. As David Weinberger writes in his fascinating new book, Everything is Miscellaneous, ‘the solution to the over abundance of information is more information’. Indeed this is the whole purpose of the Media Standards Trust’s tranparency initiative (that I’ve blogged about here).

3. PR needs to adopt some of the values of journalism. The growth of PR – within independent news and elsewhere – isn’t going to stop. PR will become bigger and even more amorphous. When you read on GreenPeace’s website that a Japanese vessel has just broken international whaling law, is it news or PR? Both. When you learn from an email press release that scientists at Newcastle have just identified an alzheimer’s gene is that news or PR? Both. Therefore it’s not a question of ‘how do we constrain PR?’ but rather ‘how do we change some of the behaviour and values of PR given its new and expanding role?’ In particular, how do we convince those within PR – particularly those in the public sector or at NGOs, that they are part of a new and expanded Fourth Estate, and as such have a greater responsibility to society than they used to (when much of what they put out was ‘filtered’)? (see earlier blog on ‘why charities need to become more like news organisations’ too).

Any thoughts on this much appreciated. These are tricky questions and I certainly wouldn’t claim to have answers to many of them – so let me know what you think (and if you let me know before tomorrow morning it’ll feed into what I say).

Written by Martin Moore

June 30th, 2008 at 7:46 am

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