Contemporary journalism — whether domestic or international — draws heavily on information subsidies, or ready-to-use information products created by third parties interested in gaining access to media time and space. An information subsidy may take the form of a press release by a company that includes quotes from its chief executives, which a journalist can easily copy into a story involving that company. Alternatively, it may take the form of video or audio produced by that company that can be used as B-roll, or supplemental content that journalists intercut with their main content when producing an audiovisual story. Such content is thus typically designed to be used directly by journalists. That is, they are produced in a journalistic style but are either designed to promote narratives that are favorable to their authors or to highlight issues, problems, and solutions that the authors advocate for (e.g., providing ready-to-use footage of a starving polar bear to call attention to climate change). In addition to information subsidies, journalists also increasingly rely on the reports and observations of third parties.
One particularly important set of third parties in this context is NGOs, or non-governmental organizations. An NGO refers to entities that are at least nominally independent of government, voluntary in nature, and interested in the pursuit of some public good (e.g., advancing human rights, mitigating climate change, reducing poverty). This includes entities like Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and The Red Cross.
While NGOs’ primary mission is to advance their respective cause — such as fighting disease in the case of Doctors Without Borders — they also often seek media coverage to achieve a range of objectives. This may include boosting awareness of the issues they care about, lobbying political and business leaders to take certain actions, raising funds from would-be donors and foundations, and promoting their organizational brands.
As a result of declining revenues, journalistic outlets in many countries — and especially in Western Europe and North America — have reduced their coverage of topics that are important to many NGOs because those topics often fail to generate large audiences. Moreover, budget cuts have reduced journalists’ ability to visit places that are of particular interest to NGOs — and often the places where conditions for a particular issue may be worst. Consequently, NGOs have ramped up their information offerings in recent decades in order to provide journalistic outlets with highly professional information subsidies that are easy to integrate into the outlet’s journalistic work. Indeed, larger NGOs often have individuals who monitor news coverage to identify advocacy angles and have taken to hiring former journalists who can produce content that mimics typical news formats and norms.
NGOs also routinely employ researchers who produce rigorous, factual reports that are of great use to journalists. These reports are often sent directly to journalists who regularly cover related issues (in addition to other stakeholders), with accompanying fact sheets and summaries. NGOs will often make the authors of those reports available to journalists so the journalist may interview the researchers themselves. While this is less certain to generate positive coverage than a direct information subsidy, it at least increases the likelihood that the issue will receive coverage.
The relationship between NGOs and journalists can be beneficial to both parties. For journalists, it provides them with cheap, yet often useful and reliable, content for their stories. Indeed, many NGOs are rigorous in their work and produce reports that are at minimum factually sound. Moreover, they often provide action recommendations from experts, which can be useful to journalists’ desire to offer potential solutions in their reports (in addition to the usual objective of identifying problems). Finally, they provide journalists with a network of potential sources who are on the ground and can describe situations in places journalists cannot access, such as areas where conflict, disease, or natural disasters have broken out.
There are important journalistic downsides to the relationship between journalists and NGOs, though. For one, it risks turning journalistic outlets into a platform for advocacy and fundraising, especially if the proximity between the two parties ends up promoting uncritical coverage. Indeed, while NGOs often produce rigorously researched, factual information, they are not designed to be journalistic outlets. They thus sometimes have objectives and employ practices that are inconsistent with what is considered ethical journalism. Moreover, many NGOs now have their own information channels via their websites and platforms like Facebook and YouTube for distributing the content they produce, which potentially allows them to bypass news media altogether.
However, scholars have found that NGOs often struggle to either make the news or draw large audiences to the information products they distribute via their own channels (e.g., Instagram account). Instead, government officials (who frequently dismiss critical claims by NGOs) tend to receive far more attention and deference from journalists, such as by being quoted more often and more prominently within a story. This puts NGOs at a relative disadvantage in their quest to generate publicity and acceptance of their recommendations. However, research has found that NGOs have been more effective in shaping the news agendas for particular kinds of issues, such as those related to the environment.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) refer to entities that are at least nominally independent of government, voluntary in nature, and interested in the pursuit of some public good. An example of an NGO would be Reporters Without Borders.
NGOs, and larger NGOs in particular, often produce their own information materials and actively work with journalists to promote both their causes and perspectives. This relationship can be beneficial to both parties, such as by generating attention for the NGO’s work while providing journalistic outlets with high-quality information subsidies.
Journalists must be careful not to approach NGOs uncritically, though. While NGOs can be helpful and trustworthy, they may have objectives and employ practices that are inconsistent with those of journalists.