Although non-governmental organizations have been around for centuries, modern-day NGOs have begun to operate “different from the past,” according to Dr. Matthew Powers, an assistant professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington. Powers led an event in the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication where he discussed the “highly professionalized” way of NGOs today and how they can threaten the platform of journalists.
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NGOs and its newfound affect on journalism as a platform
NGOs—non-governmental organizations—have begun to blur the lines between journalism, public relations and advocacy, according to an assistant professor, a problem that could results in tarnishing journalism’s credibility.
Dr. Matthew Powers, an assistant professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington, led an event at the University of Oregon on Friday to expand on this topic. He said that while NGOs do some things really well, “they reinforce longstanding problems” within journalism.
NGOs have been around for centuries; however, the way that modern-day NGOs operate is “different from the past,” Powers said.
To begin his argument, Powers compared two images: one image from the 1960s of a press cutter—whose job entailed cutting news articles out of the newspaper that had something to do with human rights violations—and a second image of a researcher working in Syria last year. Both of the images were of Amnesty International workers/volunteers.
“This is an image of what NGO advocacy looked like 50 or 60 years ago, and it was primarily volunteer-driven,” Powers said about the first photo. “It was done by people who did it because they were passionate about it, not because they had educational degrees or backgrounds on how to do it. It was also heavily reliant on the news feed. Without the news coverage, they really didn’t know what was actually going on within the world.”
In today’s society, NGOs are no longer volunteer-driven and have become “highly professionalized,” Powers said.
The Amnesty researcher who was depicted in the second, more recent photo was on the ground in Syria. She was interviewing citizens about potential human rights violations throughout the country. She was even joined in the photo by a colleague who was filming her for potential online video content.
In the 1960s, NGOs relied on the media to obtain content about human rights violations throughout the world. Now, the NGOs have become one of the main outlets for news on these violations.
“There were not a lot of journalists on the ground in Syria last year, so this is research that not a lot of news organizations were capable of producing,” Powers said.
With NGOs becoming more PR and journalism-based, “it threatens to turn journalists into a platform for funding, for branding and for advocacy. And that’s not exactly the same thing as what journalism longs to be,” Powers said.
Throughout his PowerPoint, Powers asked one question: What does this mean for the contemporary information environment and all the information that citizens receive? Following the question, he offered reasons as to why there are people who both oppose NGOs coverage and those who are in favor of it.
“To date, we sort of have two different contrasting views: the good and bad views,” Powers said. “Some view this as largely a positive development, and they suggest that NGOs provide liable coverage. … Then there’s another group of people who are less optimistic. These are often people that say, ‘Hey, it’s great that Amnesty International is committing all these resources, but there’s a threat here to the news media.”
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The University of Oregon students who watched Power’s PowerPoint reflected both sides of the argument.
“I like that [NGOs] use the journalism outlet and the media,” senior public relations major Nicole Salvador said. “Even though some might think that it’s unproductive, I think that in some cases, a lot of people are getting news that they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise. So even though some people disagree with it, I like it.”
For others, the way NGOs have begun to operate is thought of more negatively.
“It’s really eye-opening to see how big a change there has been in how NGOs raise money or spread awareness,” senior public relations major Tiwanna Hamilton said. “But I definitely think that NGOs are really riding that edge between being negative for journalism as a platform and being productive for NGO-related issues.”
No matter personal opinion, Powers says that students who are looking for jobs should be open-minded.
“If you’re a student working in journalism, working in public relations or hoping to be involved in advocacy, these are increasingly popular career routes,” he said.