Journalists today are being trapped between editorial restrictions and passion.
Raising awareness is one of the main aspects and purpose of journalism, but writing an article on an issue might not be enough for many.
Perhaps working for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) could make the role of a journalist more than just reporting, but in fact actively contributing to the solution.
As a trained and qualified journalist from the University of Westminster, Eulette Ewart spent many years working as a journalist including at the BBC World Service.
However, after reconsideration she decided that it was time for her to fulfil her passion. “I was not able to truly do what I wanted to do so I decided that I wanted to start working for an organisation where I could use my skills as a journalist and I could communicate stories that I felt were really important to a broader audience hence moving forward to the world of NGOs.”
Since then, the former journalist has been working for Amnesty International, the non-governmental organisation which fights for the protection of human rights around the world.
From when she joined the NGO 11 years ago to now that she has become one of the Press and PR managers, she observed that, like her, more journalists have been joining the organisation seeking work: “We’ve definitely seen the shrinking opportunities for journalists to go out and do their own stories and actually taking the time to cover international human right stories.”
Decline of quality international reporting
Many people might not notice but there is an increasing absence of international reporting in national newspapers today.
As Ewart suggested when I met her at the Amnesty International HQ in London, “the world is getting smaller in that sense”. In other words, most of the news coverage today is focused on developed countries, which as you might expect, is emphasised on the UK and the United States.
The answer is simple: media organisations are broke.
Due to the increasing use of digital news and the apparent decline of newspaper readers, most of the media organisations are currently facing important financial difficulties. It’s easy for everyone to guess that the direct victims of this crisis are journalists.
In March 2016, the Guardian Media Group announced redundancies which resulted to over 250 job cuts in the UK workforce.
Additionally, we all remember the decision to stop printing The Independent and The Independent on Sunday which was announced a month earlier by the owner, Evgeny Lebedev. In his Letter to staff, Lebedev explained that this shift to digital only was inevitable knowing the current conditions of the UK print newspaper market. The closure resulted in 75 redundancies.
“We’ve definitely seen the shrinking opportunities for journalists to go out and do their own stories and actually taking the time to cover international human right stories.”
However, not only journalists are being affected by these hard times and the resulting editorial restrictions. As a consequence of a lack of funding, it is harder for media organisations to send journalists abroad to report.
Therefore the audience is left with local news. Today, many professional reporters are being forced to report from their desk or practice journalism over the phone instead of being sent on the ground.
Sarah Kavanagh from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) confirms: “Cuts particularly in newspapers saw many newspapers cut particular parts of their offering, and there are few staff journalists now working on international reporting, [it’s a] more expensive content. [There is an] increasingly reliance on stringers and in-country freelancers, competing over dwindling editorial space.”
The move to NGOs
For journalists, securing a job in the field is getting harder.
As a result of this uncertainty and lack of real reporting, many decide to pursue what they’ve worked for and believe in by joining NGOs.
“I decided to study journalism to meet more people, spread the word about their stories and raise awareness about some of the issues they may face. Not because I love writing but because I love people.” That’s what Catarina Demony, 23 years old, had to say when I asked her why she decided to study journalism.
Demony graduated from a BA Journalism course at Kingston University in 2014 and worked for over a year as a Communications Assistant for Back Up Trust, a national charity which mentally supports people living with spinal cord injury in the UK: “I figured that I could do both things and that humanitarian work is linked to journalism in many different ways.”
When working for NGOs and charities, journalists have the possibility to fulfil their desire to actively help and raise awareness in more depth.
Additionally, journalists have the opportunity to practice the journalism they had in mind when they started.
Jenna Corderoy who has an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, suggests that when a journalist works for a NGO he/she most likely has the opportunity to carry out investigations:
“When you work as a journalist you work on an article, you get it done, it gets published and it’s done. Whereas in a NGO you have the time and resources to keep on going with it and raise awareness over an issue that you’ve been working on for a while.”
Corderoy, currently a journalist and researcher, worked for Request Initiative, a small organisation that places requests on the behalf of NGOs and charities in the country.
She believes that there might be more flexibility with NGOs for journalists in today’s environment:
“Do they have the resource to develop a niche? To go out and spend time on features or are they restricted to their desk writing up press releases?”, are some of the questions she raised when I asked her why journalists go and work for NGOs.
“Not because they don’t want to, but because their newspapers don’t allow them to do so”
Jasmin O’Hara is the founder of The World Wide Tribe, a grass root group which aims to create a global community of people who care about humanitarian crisis.
Since the set up of her organisation a year and a half ago, O’Hara has been spending most of her time in refugee camps across Europe. Lesvos island in Greece, Azraq and Za’atari camps in Jordan or the infamous “Jungle” in Calais, before its demolition in October 2016, are some of the places where she has been working.
After her first Facebook post about a day in the “Jungle”, which was shared over 65,000 times, she learned that social media was a way to bring people together and spread the word.
Today she uses social media platforms, particularly Instagram, as a powerful tool to report on the refugee crisis; her posts have hundreds of likes and her video reportages over 3,000 views.
The former British fashion designer discussed with me her editorial freedom.
She explains that she enjoys writing blog posts because it’s all about her personal experience and what she thinks and that’s why she believes many people appreciate her reporting skills; “I wouldn’t say I am a journalist.”
She goes on: “I take pictures from my iPhone – I think that’s what draws attention because it makes it relatable and people see that we are not journalists or the media, plus we’ve never worked in charity before so we are just normal people”.
What pushed O’Hara to start her own organisation and get involved in the refugee crisis was the negative way in which the refugees were portrayed in the media.
Through her posts and blog posts published on the website and social media, she documents on the biggest humanitarian crisis of our times, in a sensitive way. Something limited in journalism.
“In the Calais camp, the refugees don’t like journalists and they don’t want to talk to them because they’ve had such bad experience. It’s a shame because it shouldn’t be that way and it does need to be documented. So that’s when grass roots and individuals come in to give a different and more human side of the story and that’s what we try to do.”
When I met her three days after the demolition on the “Jungle” in Calais, she agreed to say that journalists show a lack of empathy when they report on humanitarian crisis but then she explained: “[As a journalist] you simply can’t personally and emotionally get involved. You have to keep your distance and be a little bit ‘cold’ otherwise you get emotionally impacted by everything you do.”
In a world where interconnections are unlimited thanks to the Internet, anyone can apply for the job of a journalist.
However, Ewart highlights that this additional activity is important to a certain degree: “There is something to be said in preserving the strength of an actual trained journalist: a person who has the experience of the media law, who understands the ethics of journalism, who understands the nature to be unbiased and always be objective in their reporting. I think these are really fundamental pillars in journalism, which every healthy society needs to have.”
For many future, current or former students like Demony, journalism is about people.
“I figured that I could do both things and that humanitarian work is linked to journalism in many different ways.”
However, despite the fact that the industry today does not have the adventurous and exciting hint that many signed up for, journalism requires you to be impartial and not to take part.
“I enjoyed being a journalist, it’s probably one of the best jobs you can have […] but for me my passion and my focus was on international affairs and also using my skills to improve the lives of others, that’s always been a dream and a passion of mine”, says Ewart.
As the opportunities for journalists to cover international news stories are shrinking, a move towards NGOs seems to be the right thing to do for the ones thirsty of international investigations.
Kimberley Abbott argues in an essay titled ‘Working Together, NGOs and journalists can create stronger international reporting’ that the emerging relationship between the two bodies is a “win-win for everyone” because it delivers “solid, comprehensive and richly detailed foreign news stories to an under-served audience”.
As NGOs and charities work with people on the ground across the world, a greater relationship with journalists can result of the production of better foreign reporting which today often lacks of depth.
“We are quite responsive to journalists, if they want to explore a story idea we work with them as much as possible to help them meet that reality” responded Ewart when I asked her to tell me about the way Amnesty International works with journalists.
NGOs could then be an escape root from the editorial restrictions in the media: “Charities all across the world work directly with people, on the ground, and that’s what a lot of journalists fail to do – not because they don’t want to, but because their newspapers don’t allow them to do so” claims Demony.
On the other side, it can also be highly beneficial for NGOs to have journalists in the team, explained here by the current MA student who describes the shift as a common practice in the media industry: “Journalists know how to interact with people, and, most importantly, they know how to get a story in the media – because they’ve been on the other side before. Also, journalists have contacts – and without contacts a charity won’t be able to spread the word about their campaigns, services and fundraising opportunities. These are all qualities that NGOs are looking for when employing someone.”
Like Ewart, many former journalists have joined the media team or the international department team at Amnesty International. Today half of the respective team members are former professional journalists.
But one question struck me: Are they doing journalism or PR?
“I think we will never admit to say that we do PR, we regard ourselves more as media managers because the majority of us focus on what’s on the news, how can Amnesty respond to that, how can Amnesty be in a news story and we always have a journalistic mindset and we are thinking about that. But we also work on building a reputation so it’s fair to probably say a fifty-fifty.”
Journalists joining NGOs can also be a danger.
Through her experience Ewart explains that NGOs is similar to a business, therefore sometimes only a side of the story is highlighted. The PR and Press manager comes to the conclusion that it’s important to keep the impartiality of journalism for respectable and trustworthy reports, “see what we have to say but also scrutinise what Amnesty says because there needs to be this independence between the two”.
Meeting point between objectivity and passion
Perhaps a solution
As foreign investigative journalism seems to be slowly dying, one form of journalism could be seen as the perfect combo between regular reporting and making a positive change.
‘Development journalism’ has been around since the 1960s and it aims to improve the conditions in developing countries where social injustice occurs.
Development journalism considers the audience, the interviewee and the interviewer as equal.
This is a meeting point where objectivity is kept but passion is allowed to come out. Some people argue that it gives “flavour” to the journalistic reports while others describe it as something that “gives soul to the media”.
Featured image by © The WorldWideTribe