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For Immediate Release
March 3, 2004

HUMANITARIAN RELIEF: STRUGGLING TO MAKE THE NEWS AGENDA

LONDON and SAN FRANCISCO - According to a study published today, a lack of reporters assigned to crisis beats, together with little or no funding available for field visits to crisis sites, means that humanitarian relief is low on the news agenda. Compounding the issue is a lack of media skills among relief charities, as the study finds that non-governmental organizations (NGO)s are vastly under-using technology and skills resources available to them.

A new study, jointly undertaken by two not-for-profit organisations, Reuters AlertNet and Fritz Institute, examines the dynamics of media coverage of humanitarian relief. The global survey, covering press relations personnel in headquarters and regional offices of 54 humanitarian relief organizations, and 290 international journalists who cover them, is to date the largest, most comprehensive survey of the relationship between international journalists and NGOs.

Media coverage is an important tool for relief NGOs to achieve their mission driven activities - from advocacy to public support. Fritz Institute and AlertNet conducted this study to help the humanitarian relief community build its capacity to engage the media," said Anisya Thomas, Ph.D., managing director of Fritz Institute

Money: A Thorny Issue
Lack of funding was top of the list of greatest barriers to coverage, mentioned by 55% of North American journalists and 71% of those from elsewhere. Responses to numerous questions in the survey reveal that news organizations do not feel they can invest more money to send reporters to areas where aid is being administered. Respondents, especially from outside North America, say they need and would welcome funds from other than their news organizations to cover these stories, if the funding is independent of the groups they cover.

"Journalists know that most relief charities simply don't have the resources to pay for visits and feel that it would be unethical to ask. But many journalists specifically consider "independent" funding sources, separate from the groups they wish to cover, as ethical. Many commentators on journalistic ethics would disagree. It is hard to imagine any existing funding sources as truly independent, because their funding would affect the choice of topics to cover. But such arrangements are indeed more common outside Europe and North America, where media organizations have little money to spare," said Mark Jones, Editor of AlertNet.

Lack of PR Skills Among NGOs
In addition to low resources, NGOs PR efforts are further compounded by a lack of media skills:

  • Press relations specialists at NGOs surveyed noted repeatedly that field offices tend to be staffed by local nationals who are often inexperienced in press relations.
  • Larger organizations have guidelines for press relations that typically ask press officers to "pass media up the line" to home offices. But the process is often ignored, especially if a journalist has been doing stories in the region or specifically with the regional humanitarian aid organization's office.
  • Execution - providing information and on-site visits to journalists - is usually adequate, but fraught with errors. Many NGO respondents described mistakes made with press during crisis situations that led or could have led to unfavourable coverage of their work.
  • When asking journalists what they considered to be the main barriers to crisis reporting, lack of funding for field visits was top of the list, followed by lack of timely response from groups at the site. This ties in strongly with comments from NGO press relations personnel - they push for more help from "headquarters" because they have limited staff time during emergencies and limited knowledge of how the press works.

NGO Websites Not Meeting Journalists' Needs
In the absence of funding for trips and timely information from press officers, reporters are reliant on NGO websites. Even small field offices often have websites and news about them can be found on headquarters sites even if they don't. But Internet technology is not used to the fullest:

  • Three of the 32 websites that the research looked at in depth lacked contact names and addresses. Only 17 of the 32 described the organization's background, or include an archive of reports on current and past projects and only a third included an archive of past press releases.
  • Furthermore, few sites are organized so that Google and other search engines can search reliably beyond their home page. The research found that almost half (43%) of journalists find organizations working at the scene by using Google or other search engines.
  • Journalists are keen on for NGOs to place links and contact information on their websites to other groups doing similar things or serving in the same areas. However, for reasons of inertia and marketing, most NGOs do not do this. Journalists' frustration at this was apparent, with many quoting that they tend to feel that NGOs are "in a crisis together," and should help one another by acknowledging each other's existence. This frustration may go some way towards explaining why, by a three-to-one margin, respondents say criticism and scepticism in the press about relief organisations has also increased.
In conclusion, Mark Jones comments: "Crisis fatigue and funding are undoubtedly difficult issues to overcome. However, what NGOs can control is their communications with press. Our research confirms that there is room for NGOs to improve on some of the very basics of media communications. Furthermore, the potential of Internet technologies has barely begun to be exploited by NGOs. Improving on these two areas could lead to a direct increase in recognition and coverage."

About the Author
Towards New Understandings: Journalists & Humanitarian Relief Coverage was conducted by Professor Steven Ross, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York. The report was commissioned by Reuters AlertNet and Fritz Institute.

About Reuters AlertNet
Reuters AlertNet, the news and communications service for humanitarian relief charities, has more than 200 emergency relief charity members from 48 countries. The website attracts up to a million unique visitors a month. AlertNet is run by Reuters Foundation, which is a charitable trust funded by Reuters, the global information company. For additional information visit www.alertnet.org.

About Fritz Institute
Fritz Institute strengthens the infrastructures of humanitarian relief organizations by mobilizing logistics and technology expertise and resources from the corporate and academic communities. For additional information visit www.fritzinstitute.org.

 
 
 
 
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