Old Hands, New Voice

How NGOs learned to do news

NEW YORK, 2014—Back in 2009, the future of international reporting looked bleak indeed. Several big U.S. newspapers had shut down their foreign bureaus altogether. The American TV networks had basically shrunk their international presence to London. Covering the Iraq war had nearly bankrupted foreign-news budgets, and by then, the American public had lost interest in the Iraq war. Or indeed in foreign news at all, a lot of the time. It was tough being the most expensive and least read story in the queue. Like a faded diva in a ratty mink stole (“Oh, this old thing? I bought it on assignment covering Brezhnev”), foreign correspondents slunk from the stage, costly and unwanted.

Yet even then you could have spied a few positive trends. First, the basic cost of international fact-gathering and distribution had fallen precipitously. Cameras and recorders were absurdly cheap and the means of transmission cheaper still. (Marx might have called it a revolution in the means of production.) Then, too, it was finally dawning on everyone that the United States was rapidly growing more international by almost every measure: the percentage of American businesses with interests overseas (and what was “American” business anymore anyway?), the percentage of the American population born in another country, the percentage of Starbucks customers buying the “World Music” CD at the cash register. You still couldn’t sell People magazine at the newsstand with Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni on the cover, maybe, but international news was locating an audience. Why were the BBC and The Economist moving into a market here if one didn’t exist?

A disproportionate number of media executives back in 2009 had been foreign correspondents in their glory days, of course, but even they had to admit that those days hadn’t necessarily been all that glorious. No one could quite remember Walter Cronkite’s last story about Burundi, back in the days when the American media were supposedly doing such a boffo job covering the world. And everyone had to admit that it was a lot easier finding out something about Burundi in 2009 than it had been back in, say, 1963. A lot of world news went uncovered, and unread, even in the glory days.

Fortunately, foreign correspondents were not alone. Alongside them on beats from Chechnya to Congo to the mountains of Nepal, an army of human-rights investigators, academic researchers, aid workers, and country experts of various kinds were also out there gathering facts. They didn’t get interviews with the prime minister very often, and they didn’t always feel it necessary to quote the brigade commander insisting his men had nothing to do with that massacre in that village. But sometimes they had more expertise than the journalists who stole their insights, lifted their research, and quoted them in paragraph seventeen. The Internet, meanwhile, changed the game.

For thirty years, Human Rights Watch had been sending its researchers on missions around the world to investigate and report on issues of serious human-rights abuse. Those researchers had been churning out worthy reports couched in dense legalese—more like case files, intended for a specialist audience (the National Security Council expert on Central Asia, say, or the UN peacekeeping staff) than reportage meant for the general public. But HRW started giving the press a run for its money in 2009, hiring experienced journalists for a new multimedia unit whose job it was, essentially, to report on the work of HRW. By early 2009, some sixty thousand pages were being viewed on the organization’s Web site every day. That traffic compelled HRW to speak in terms the public could understand. If the journalists weren’t going to cover those stories, then HRW, like other nongovernmental organizations, would have to do so itself. The organization had dozens of investigators covering more than seventy countries—more than the foreign correspondent corps of either The New York Times or The Washington Post. It lacked the journalistic muscle to turn its research into digestible information products—until grants from private donors gave it the means to attract experienced professionals from an industry that no longer valued them.

Now war photographers who could no longer snag an assignment from Time or Newsweek went on mission with HRW researchers. They shot video as well, and handed it over to a team of editors back at the Empire State Building in New York. Staff researchers were issued high-quality audio recorders to use when interviewing survivors of human-rights abuse, and former radio reporters assembled the audio files into powerful testimonials. The new HRW Web site (HRW.org) modeled itself on the BBC, with four prominent multimedia stories on the homepage and a clickable list, organized by geography and topic, with the latest information on human rights from dozens of countries. The day after the presidential inauguration saw homepage news on Obama’s decision to halt the military commission hearings at Guantánamo Bay (where HRW had two staffers at the proceedings); an Israel-Gaza package including a q&a on the complex issues of civilian casualties and international humanitarian law, an audio interview with HRW’s researcher on the ground, and a lengthy briefing paper on the humanitarian situation in Gaza; and a piece on the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s lawyer. The audience for this material went beyond HRW’s own Web site. Because the mainstream media wouldn’t pick up whole stories edited and distributed by an advocacy group, HRW also made it available in disaggregated form. Radio reporters could pull a quote off the site and stitch it into their own stories. TV producers could use video shot by HRW in the field, mix it with a little stock footage or some wire shots, and create a foreign-news piece from the field without ever leaving midtown Manhattan. And media companies were getting less choosy about where they got their stories from, anyway. For sure, the price was right: HRW gave its content away for free.

But it isn’t journalism! cried the stalwart defenders of the sacred flame. And they were right. But it wasn’t exactly a video news release sneaked onto local TV news by the Bush White House, either. The origins of Human Rights Watch’s material were clearly marked, not least because it wanted the publicity.

The idea caught fire. Within several months, other nonprofit research groups saw the value in producing their own digestible information products—dare not call it journalism!—and before long, they banded together to create economies of scale. Rather than replicating multimedia capability across a number of NGOs, they formed a consortium to report on the work of them all. This news service leveraged the expertise within the nonprofit sphere to feed the mainstream media with high-quality international content, to inform the public about what was happening in the world, and to cycle multimedia content back to the NGOs themselves, for use on their own sites or with their own donors. A board of overseers watched over the journalistic integrity of the product. And an open forum on the service’s Web site meant that no NGO could purvey a false or inflated storyline without the possibility of public challenge.

In 2014, just as in 2009, the public continues to hold the media in low esteem, right down there with businessmen and politicians. The nongovernmental sector, meanwhile, still enjoys higher approval ratings than any of them. What we learned is that readers don’t trust the information less because it doesn’t come from the mainstream media. They trust it more.

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Carroll Bogert is associate director of Human Rights Watch. From 1986-1998, she was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek in China, Southeast Asia, and the Soviet Union.