Commentary

Newsflash: Non-Profits Are Not Impartial

This piece was originally written for my column about transparency and the media on Beacon Reader

The notion of editorial impartiality can be a very seductive failing.

The rise of data-driven explainer sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight has heralded a resurgence of this ‘view from nowhere’, an insistence on editorial ‘impartiality’ that, at best, leads to imbalanced reporting and, at worst, is used to obscure the actual editorial line from the public. Either way, it is a widely derided practice within journalism for a number of reasons. For the purpose of this piece I will focus on one of the core problems — as a public communicator, is it ever ethical to obscure your subjectivity?

“If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.” Jay Rosen

The ethical issue, in journalism, centres around deciding what exactly a media organisation is supposed to be doing. On the face of it ‘informing the public’ would be a clear, understandable, boilerplate answer. But does that mean informing the public about everybody’s views, regardless of context, or indicating which way the wind is blowing on various issues?

To do the latter is to be accused of subjectivity, a dreaded insult for reporters. But what is actually more useful for the public?

Objectivity is something to strive for in the news business. To abandon it completely is to abandon your purpose of informing the public. On the other hand, to replace editorial understanding, nuance and instinct with ‘pure’ objectivity is another abandonment — of the truth.

Here’s the secret: nobody is objective. To suggest that your editorial line is totally impartial is fundamentally a lie. Every individual has prejudices and opinions informed by their specific life. You cannot truly step outside of yourself and deliver totally impartial reflections on anything. You can try and fail, that is all.

Unless you own the fact that you are aiming for and missing true objectivity, you are misrepresenting your organisation and the content it produces to the public.

There’s nothing ethical about that.

Changes in non-profit communication

A long-standing interest of mine is the interactions between non-profits, media organisations and government bodies (particularly on the issue of transparency). Usually, my criticism is that these different sectors do not share enough when they could often benefit from closer collaboration. In the case of the view from nowhere, however, crossover simply exacerbates the problem.

A number of excellent articles in the international development blogosphere in the last few months have reflected a changing mood. Essentially, this is a sector that has relied on over-simplification and shocking imagery for the last few decades, an approach often derided as ‘poverty porn’. For many years, lots of people people have been very critical of this approach.

This current wave of backlash is extremely welcome and makes a number of crucial points, which include:

The author of that last piece, Dan Lombardi, makes a lot of points that I agree with but I was slightly troubled by his focus on communication that does not focus “solely on the positive or the negative”. In telling the story honestly, Lombardi suggests, you end up with more balanced content that is better able to deal with the inherent complexity of much of the work done in the development sector.

Undoubtedly, this complexity is there — from competing viewpoints to widespread ignorance of the subject matter (see: Ebola) to deep divisions within the industry on how best to achieve success, or even what success might look like. This is all tough stuff for outsiders, which is 99% of the potential audience. For me, his take on honest story telling does not take in another vital component — the storytellers themselves.

Non-profits aren’t impartial either

Development agencies communicate largely to raise either funds or awareness. They are not making content to inform the public. Non-profits have agendas just like everybody else.

The stated aim of most non-profits is to alleviate poverty in some form or another. It is not to make the public more knowledgeable (although that could align with their aim). In fact, their strategy could well be to make the public shocked enough to give money very quickly — hence poverty porn — or to tell the public that their relatively meagre support will make a huge difference — hence Live8 or Kony2012. Those aims are often better achieved by misinforming the public, by dumbing down the message to the point of dis-ingeniousness.

I don’t think that the Make Poverty History team actually thought that they would end poverty by getting people to buy wristbands. They just wanted maximum coverage and support and figured that’d be a fast way to get it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of the development bloggers are actively endorsing the view from nowhere. Embracing complexity and rejecting the classically paternalistic approach of development communication should be applauded. But there is a danger that this could lead to communication that seeks to hide the agenda of the NGOs and agencies creating it — all in the name of letting their beneficiaries take centre stage. This is the ethical dilemma that has faced journalism for many years.

For me, the stakes are much higher in the world of development: ultimately, development agencies seek to serve the poorest, most vulnerable people on earth. They have no way of combating the agendas of development organisations. If those organisations do not take ownership of their agendas and seek to communicate that, alongside their more nuanced telling of the stories of their work, they will have misrepresented their beneficiaries.

There’s nothing ethical about that, either.

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