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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Advice, Jobs

How To Write So You Won’t Be Ignored

This year, you will write something that almost nobody will read. You will probably write several things that nobody will read. Write with the assumption that no one wants to read what you’re writing: convince them that they should.

A lot of people do not communicate effectively. In all offices, in all organisations and all sectors you will receive hundreds of written documents that are confusing or boring (this includes emails!) and, in the end, don’t actually achieve much at all. It can be very frustrating.

This is not something that particularly afflicts interns – many managers and supervisors suffer the same issue – but it is an excellent asset for younger people looking to make an impression. Many people will tell university students to learn technical skills like data analysis or engineering or ICT knowledge. This is sensible advice. But I do think that it’s worth remembering simpler skills, ones that don’t necessarily require a stay in university (in fact, academic training is probably one of the main culprits for bad communication in the field of international development). After all, everybody complains about jargon and acronymitis – let’s do something about that.

I recently put together a short presentation on this topic as part of my fellowship programme with the Grameen Foundation. It’s a short series of tips and tricks that are well worth remembering.

We live in a world that is spectacularly, almost absurdly saturated with information. If you want people to pay attention to anything you are adding to this over-abundance, you’d better make sure it’s clear and easy to read.

This borrowed heavily from the terrific book I mentioned at the end, Writing That Works. I heartily recommend it to all the development interns out there. The long quote is well-known but, in my mind, unbeatable and was written by the great Gary Provost.

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Advice

Course Reviews: Communication for Development at Malmö University

There are a lot of development related degrees out there. So many, in fact, it can be overwhelming. To help people out, we’ll be running several reviews of courses. If you would like to contribute a review of a course you’ve taken or if you want to attract more students to your programme please email development.intern.blog@gmail.com

comdev1

Communication for Development (ComDev) is an interdisciplinary field of study and practice, combining studies in culture, communication and development integrated with practical fieldwork. It explores the use of communication – both as a tool and as a way of articulating processes of social change – within the context of globalisation.

While Communication Studies commonly is associated with concepts like information, media and messages, Communication for Development not only encompasses these terms, but also embraces a much broader approach. ComDev focuses on approaches that work to facilitate dialogue and define priorities for messages and information, but most importantly, on social processes to involve people in their development – making people active participants, and not only passive receivers of messages and information.

From its start in 2000, ComDev set out to be an academic programme available to everyone, everywhere, even those students unable to relocate for their university studies. One of the key aspects of this approach is our livestreams where our students can follow the lectures in real time, no matter where they are in the world. These livestreamed sessions also allow students to interact with their peers and the teachers and to engage in group discussions and assignments.

Our student body is diverse: culturally, geographically and in their academic and professional backgrounds. This allows our students to deepen their knowledge within their existing area of expertise while also gaining a broad overview based on the academic backgrounds and practical experiences of their peers, allowing them to be able to work both interdisciplinarily and transculturally in their future professions. Many of our students and alumni work in professional media companies, international organisations (governmental and non-governmental) or are undertaking doctoral studies.

The programme runs part-time over two years and is conducted online with the opportunity of attending two or three weekend seminars in person. During their first year, our students receive a comprehensive overview of globalisation and an introduction to the field of Communication for Development. During their second year, the students are introduced to the use of new media and ICT in a development context and receive a thorough introduction to research methodologies in order to prepare them for their final thesis.

The benefits of studying in an international setting with the opportunity to interact with students from all around the world is a great asset to the programme and in combination with students who are working in ComDev-related fields, the opportunity to share experiences provides added value. ComDev embraces the international mind-set when planning for seminars and to date we have held seminars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, South Africa and Tanzania to name a few and we encourage our students to attend the seminars in person if they have the opportunity.

When writing their theses, we recommend students to conduct field studies and our students have had the opportunity of doing fieldwork in countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Egypt, India, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa. We always encourage our students to think outside the box and employ innovativeness and creativity to their fieldwork experiences. ComDev theses have included documentaries, short films, photo essays and a wide array of dissertations presented in exciting and original formats.

As an addition to our master’s programme, we offer a part-time course called Advances in Communication for Development, which aims to enhance skills and deepen knowledge in the strategic use of media and communication in development cooperation. Students are given the opportunity to independently plan, implement and evaluate a ComDev intervention. From 2014 this course is also offered as Commission Education for organisations and companies.

Web: www.mah.se/comdev

Twitter: @mahcomdev

Facebook: www.facebook.com/comdevmalmo

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