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When Greenpeace hires journalists, it’s a double-edged sword

Greenpeace is seeking to use investigative reporters to supplement its advocacy efforts. Michael Kooren/Reuters

Last week, Greenpeace announced it was hiring a team of journalists to make investigative reporting a pillar of its advocacy work.

The thinking goes that by bringing timely, insightful coverage into the public domain, the organization can boost its chances of pressuring corporations and governments into taking action on some of today’s most pressing environmental issues.

In fact, Greenpeace joins a growing number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) trying their hand at journalism. Human Rights Watch now assigns photographers and videographers to produce multimedia packages that accompany research reports. Amnesty International employs “news writers” charged with making the organization a compelling online portal for human rights news. And in the midst of humanitarian emergencies, Oxfam sends “firemen” reporters to gather information and offer analysis.

NGOs have long sought publicity, but the growth of “NGO journalism” stems from recent changes in the news media, advocacy and technology.

The news media’s financial woes make it difficult to adequately cover issues like climate change, human rights and global poverty. Because many NGOs rely on credible reporting in order to have their causes taken seriously, they’re increasingly inclined to report on certain issues themselves, utilizing digital tools that reduce the costs of publishing and promoting articles.

But my research, which focuses on humanitarian and human rights groups, suggests that this development of NGO journalism is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, by taking journalistic values like credibility and fairness seriously, these groups are able to produce the sorts of coverage that news organizations would if they had the time and resources to do so. Moreover, by fusing their reporting with recommendations for taking action, these groups also provide the public with potential solutions to the problems they describe.

For example, a recent multimedia feature from Human Rights Watch about human rights violations in the Central Africa Republic was based on months of on-the-ground reporting. The report – which documents war crimes and their effects on civilians – nicely demonstrates the positive contributions advocacy groups can make by committing themselves to news production.

However, the entrance of NGOs into journalism presents complications. Advocacy groups produce information not just to inform and enlighten but also to boost donations and promote their brands. Sometimes, these latter aims lead organizations to sensationalize their coverage, which can, in turn, distort public perceptions about the nature of social problems.

NGO reporting about the prevalence of sexual violence during Liberia’s 14-year civil war offers an uncomfortable case in point. In an effort to raise awareness, advocacy groups circulated claims that 75% or more women in the country had been raped. Detailed surveys and interviews put that number at somewhere between 10% and 20%.

Furthermore, in their effort to produce journalism, NGOs can sometimes privilege speed and drama rather than analyze the underlying causes that shape issues like climate change, human rights violations and global poverty. In those cases, NGOs mimic – rather than challenge – some of journalism’s least attractive tendencies.

So what measures can be taken to maximize the positive contributions of NGO journalism, while minimizing its less attractive aspects?

For starters, advocacy groups must have an incentive to produce information – not advertisements dressed up as news. In particular, my research finds that organizations with secure long-term funding are more likely to be insulated from short-term pressures to exaggerate, as are organizations with strong research cultures that are cautious about risking their reputations just to garner attention.

News organizations have a role to play, too. The NGO sector includes organizations with annual budgets that rival those of small countries, yet many operate with minimal oversight. News organizations can help audiences evaluate the information that advocacy groups produce and to hold them accountable to the claims they make.

ProPublica did exactly this when they investigated the American Red Cross’s dismal relief efforts in the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, finding that despite raising half a billion dollars, the group built only six permanent homes.

Journalists can also make sure that a few leading groups – which historically garner the overwhelming share of media attention – do not crowd out the claims of advocates with fewer resources.

The promise of NGO journalism is that advocacy groups will pick up some of the slack in media coverage, while deepening public engagement on pressing problems. The peril is that it will distract advocacy groups from their core aims and turn journalism into a platform for fundraising or misleading reporting.

It’s too early to know how Greenpeace’s new investigative mission will fare. But the growing presence of such groups in journalism provides an important reminder that solid reporting and heartfelt advocacy need not be polar opposites. At their best, they can be two sides of the same coin.

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