Development actors tend to pay media to publish content that often is just their PR material in disguise. It’s time to rethink a practice that undermines both independent journalism and the aid sector’s credibility.
By Prue Clarke
The pages of newspapers in low-income countries often look more like promotional material for development groups than reportage of the major issues impacting society. A group of experts met, a hospital is planned, new wells are installed. Press release copy-and-paste, no context, no second source, no new perspective. And no insight for citizens hoping to understand what is really going on.
This sounds like sloppy and uninteresting journalism, and it is.
But the journalists are not the only ones to blame. In many emerging democracies, journalism in the public interest has struggled to find a financial footing.
Even more so, as the current pandemic recession threatens to cut a swathe through independent media, donors are scrambling to try to shore up media businesses. Public interest journalism is the last dyke holding back the tsunami of disinformation threatening to swallow democracies everywhere.
But even the most financially robust media businesses will struggle to thrive in marketplaces beset by unfair competition from international players. And, ironically, in most emerging democracies, those international players are development groups.
This needs to change. Aid spending has the potential to be a lifeblood for independent media in besieged emerging markets. And independent media could do a far better job of helping development actors spread the vital information that will drive change.
There has never been a more urgent moment for development actors to reassess their interactions with local news media, and to find a smarter way forward.
To understand the damaging effects development money has had on media in low-income countries, it helps to look at the difference between newsmaker-journalist interactions in developed and less developed countries.
In a healthy democracy, an organization seeking media coverage of an issue—for instance an aid organization—will reach out to journalists directly, send a press release or hold a press conference. Journalists then use their reporting skills to assess the story's truth and its value for their audience. Journalists will add the context the audience needs to understand it. The aid organization may also choose to bypass the journalists' filter and pay for its content to run as advertising. These two mechanisms protect journalistic independence and make it clear to the audience who created the content.
In many low-income countries, things work differently. Most media outlets pay the journalists little or nothing at all. Instead, journalists make their income in payments from the people they write about. The practice is so entrenched that many people, including aid staff, don't recognize it is a bribe. No-one uses the word 'bribe', of course. The payments are called 'expenses' for travel to a press conference or 'per diems' for sitting in a workshop.
Development groups also tap local journalists for international travel opportunities, fat with 'expenses' and awarded in opaque processes designed to reward favourable coverage. Everyone involved understands the payments will result in positive coverage without journalistic scrutiny. In most cases, the resulting story is a rewritten press release: dull, single-sourced, with no fact-checking, no opposing views and no real-life case study that will help audiences relate to the story.
A wiser way
No one wins in this scenario. The journalist is not given the funding and freedom to choose the story she thinks is most important to her audience. The story is so dull the development group does not get any audience engagement in its issue. The news organization doesn't get revenue to invest in innovation or good journalism. The audience does not get a balanced take on real issues impacting their society.
The knock-on effects of this broken system are profound: Journalism becomes a tool for vested interests to spread disinformation. Journalists and their work are not regarded as trustworthy or as useful tools of democracy holding leadership to account. There is no incentive for journalists to do quality independent journalism. The journalism profession is seen as a stepping-stone to better paying and more respected jobs—often, frustratingly, in the development sector. Local media markets lose most of their top journalists to development jobs. Top graduates don't enter journalism, and few stay long enough to learn the skills to do the reporting that has impact. It's a vicious cycle that will never deliver the journalism a vibrant democracy needs.
Fixing this broken dynamic is crucial for everyone. The good news is that a rethink in approach could be game changing for local media outlets. There is already a vast pool of potential media revenue, that has not been tapped, in aid spending. Official aid spending reached 150 billion US Dollars in 2019 according to the OECD. Aid makes up the equivalent of more than 10 per cent of the GDP of a dozen sub-Saharan African countries, for instance. In post-war settings such as Liberia and Afghanistan, aid spending has been even equal to the size of the entire local economy.
A sector of that size would be a major source of advertising and sponsorship clients for news media in a healthy economy. Sadly, development spending in low-income countries rarely goes to advertising. Instead, it feeds a corrupt business model that discourages good journalism and undermines the market. (By contrast, media development funding—which aims to strengthen free, inclusive, and pluralistic media systems that yield high-quality journalism—makes up just 0.3 per cent of total aid).
The way ahead
Step one will be for development groups to adopt policies that stop undermining the forces that incentivize good journalism. Step two would see aid organizations direct media budgets to advertising, grants and collaborations that use media as a key tool in achieving their goals and in boosting overall economic and democratic development.
Some development organizations have already started in the right direction. They have been careful in choosing the media outlets they support, prioritizing those that have built business models based on independent revenue. Newsrooms such as Premium Times in Nigeria, JoyFM in Ghana and Front Page Africa in Liberia, have rejected the pay-for-play model. They pay journalists decent wages and forbid them from taking payments from newsmakers. The outcome has been the same as it would be in any healthy media market: impactful public interest journalism that holds leaders to account, informs the public and sets a higher standard for journalism.
A new group of non-profit organizations has become a critical link between donors and newsrooms. Commercial newsrooms rarely have the expertise to manage grants and donors often require grantees to be non-profit. One of the pioneers was Bhekesisa, the non-profit newsroom covering health issues established as an affiliate of South Africa's Mail and Guardian with support from GIZ, the German development agency. Since 2015 it has been funded primarily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the health focused development behemoth. Now an independent entity, Bhekesisa partners with all of South Africa's key independent media. The Gates Foundation has also been among the funders of health reporting at a non-profit investigative center attached to Premium Times in Nigeria.
Development actors have also funded the work of New Narratives (NN), the non-profit newsroom I founded in 2010 with Liberian editor Rodney Sieh. New Narratives is not a publisher. It does not compete with local media. Instead, we manage the donor grants and collaborate with independent local media to help them do excellent, independent journalism. NN funding has come from organizations focusing on a wide range of issues that are central to the region's development –– women and children's rights, mining and oil, forestry, land rights, environment and justice. We have rules about who we accept money from, like any good news organization, and donors have no say in our editorial process. For transparency with the audience we identify the funders in a tagline on each story but also say they had no say in the content. Together with our media partners, we decide which stories to pursue and how to cover them.
New Narratives pays the reporting and editing expenses and in that way, contributes to the bottom line of the media outlet. It gets great independent journalism that increases its credibility, audience share and revenue. NN has worked with a corps of journalists who have had the chance to do independent journalism exclusively for their own people for as long as ten years. They have not had to leave the profession to make a reliable income. They are independent, rigorous, brave and lauded by audiences for their work. They have set a new high standard for journalism. And helped build trust in journalism among the population.
The funders get compelling, credible coverage of their issues that has impact. When our coverage upsets the government, the donor may come under fire. To date, NN has never pulled a story because of concern for funders. Funders understand that our independence is what gives our reporting the credibility that is key to the impact we all want to have.
There are valid critiques of donor-funded reporting: it can skew the country's news agenda to donors' priorities and deter coverage of donors that badly need scrutiny. But these compromises have always been part of the news business. Until that magical day when independent revenue for journalism is so abundant that we don’t need to make compromises, we must not let perfect be the enemy of good. Donor funded journalism with strong boundaries to prevent interference is a vast improvement from the toxic ecosystem that development actors currently fund.
Two steps urgently needed
1. A code of conduct should be developed for development actors engaging with media in developing democracies. The code should:
2. A sponsored content agency (SCA) should be established to support development actors who want to advertise in news media in low-income countries. The SCA could work with independent media outlets to create compelling, high quality content that is right for the audience. The actors would pay for the costs of creation and for running the content. The content would be labelled as 'sponsored' or 'advertorial' with full transparency to the audience. One example might be a Unicef-sponsored vaccination campaign. The SCA would work with Unicef to create generic content that is then adapted for each market with local languages and influencers in collaboration with the local media outlet. That way the media outlet would get an independent revenue stream. The development agency would get impactful, truthful messages out through trusted local sources with large audiences. The agency would need start-up funds but would be self-sustaining over time.
The threat to information ecosystems in fragile countries is acute. But supporting media business building in a toxic marketplace is futile. By fixing the destructive dynamic between development actors and local media, we could go a long way to boosting the forces that will help quality journalism and democracy thrive.
Prue Clarke is a journalist and media development innovator whose reporting and commentary have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Guardian, Foreign Policy and the BBC. Prue co-founded New Narratives, a non-profit supporting independent journalism and media innovation in Africa. She created and led BBC Media Action programming during the Ebola crisis in West Africa, was a founding executive of the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Director of International Reporting at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Prue started her career with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Financial Times.