The challenge of changing the media narrative

Henry Roberts 14th September 2023

East Africa hunger crisis appeal. Photo credit: Action Against Hunger

Earlier this week, IBT hosted a discussion with journalists and INGOs on how best to promote the decolonisation agenda. Henry Roberts, our communications officer, reflects on what was said.

On Wednesday morning, IBT, along with Bond and Peace Direct, hosted a roundtable, bringing together journalists and heads of some of the country’s leading INGOs to discuss language, images and power in international development. The event allowed figures within the media and charity sector to express their views on the decolonisation agenda – how it’s working, how it’s not working, and how we can bridge the gap between NGOs and the media when it comes to reporting global stories ethically, accurately and sensitively.

This conversation was particularly timely. With the horrific natural disasters in Libya and Morocco at the top of the news agenda, how we report about aid is a complex question many of the journalists present had been grappling with in the days and hours prior to the discussion. Whilst the event was held under Chatham House rules, here are some broad takeaways of what was discussed and where we should focus our attention going forward. 

The legacies of colonial thinking still persist

Over the past few years, there has been a seismic cultural shift within the INGO sector. Following the Black Lives Matter movement and a growing confrontation with Britain’s colonial past, international charities are increasingly asking themselves difficult questions and committing to changing practices – in projects, in management structure and in the use of words and images. 

These changes are urgent and welcome, but the legacies of colonial thinking still persist in the INGO sector, not just in its communications but also in its operations. For a long time, some INGOs have behaved as if they consider themselves to be self-appointed experts in certain regions, at the expense of the knowledge and dignity of local communities. This mode of working has been reflected in the sector’s longstanding reliance on outdated tropes, harmful images and unhelpful stereotypes, all of which contribute to the continuation of a power imbalance between ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ countries. (Indeed, one of the questions raised in the discussion was whether binary terms like developed/underdeveloped are even appropriate when talking about global work.) 

It’s not supposed to be easy

There is still a lot to be done, both within individual charities and as a sector overall, but several participants shared with us their experiences of how they are dealing with issues of bias internally. One example saw a prominent INGO bringing in an external consultant to audit the charity’s communications output through a decolonised/anti-racist lens. The findings were critical and difficult to swallow for a charity committed to helping other people. But this work isn’t supposed to be easy. To think otherwise misunderstands the complexity and importance of decolonisation in practice. More charities should be brave enough to bring in an external, critical eye and make changes based on their recommendations.

But in order to create cultural change, it’s not enough for INGOs to make changes on their own. The media too should be aspirational and journalists should challenge themselves to adopt the principles of decolonisation. How exactly they might start to do that we’ll come onto, but without such a change in thinking, the work of charities will continue to be misrepresented, ultimately fuelling suspicion towards the sector from large swathes of the general public. 

The media needs to resist the temptation of clickbait 

Not so long ago, the news agenda was dominated by what was on the front page of the newspapers and what led the evening news on television. Now, news is digital and 24/7. And with greater digitisation comes greater understanding of audience trends. Indeed, editors and journalists can quite easily see which stories are performing best by the number of clicks they receive. 

What this has led to is a media that is often tempted to report in a sensationalist way, knowing it is competing with other outlets for clicks. 

There is increasing pressure on journalists to post stories frequently and quickly, not wanting to be seen as out of the loop on the latest development. But speed, for all its tremendous advantages in delivering breaking news, often comes at the expense of quality. And the end result is ultimately a lowered standard of journalism and a skewed news agenda.

As was acknowledged by some journalists in the room, the media needs to be braver and take its time to deliver more thoughtful and nuanced stories. Global events need to be put into proper context in order for a general audience to understand them and why they are important. Not every journalist or news outlet is guilty of clickbait, but the pressure to lead with sensationalist language and imagery, often at the expense of the complexity and dignity of the story and those within it, is something to which every journalist working in our digital age can relate. The task now is to find ways to engage readers and viewers in the nuance without resorting to undignified sensationalism. 

Every level of an organisation – whether media or INGO – needs to commit to change

If organisations are to lead the way in change, every level needs to be committed. This applies to both INGOs and media outlets. Not only will this increase legitimacy and transparency, committing to a cross-departmental approach will also minimise the risk of making mistakes in implementation. 

There are countless examples where the media has let itself down because of a lack of coordination between departments. INGOs present at the roundtable recounted stories of sending press packs to journalists – packs that met the charity’s internal guidelines – only to see the story being run with a completely inappropriate image. Accompanying articles on overseas stories with outdated, stereotypical images of suffering (‘poverty porn’ or ‘fly in the eye’ type shots) is not uncommon. Not only does this let the media organisation down, it also makes the charity look bad by association. In this instance, the charity was reluctant to share the story on social media for fear the image would reflect badly on them. Ultimately, this diminishes the work of the journalist and the charity’s press team, as well as the people in the story.

Images and headlines matter – not just words

As any journalist who has handled criticism over an image or headline will tell you, they are not in total control of their story. Headlines are generally written by copy editors, whilst photographs are the domain of the picture desk. This means that a journalist can write a sensitive piece, only to see it skewed at the editorial level. What this tells us is that discussions around anti-racism and decolonisation need to be cross-departmental. Just as it would be no good if a charity’s media team committed itself to a set of principles that were flouted by the fundraising team, so too would it be wrong for the responsibility to fall exclusively on the shoulders of individual journalists. If the media is to change the way it tells stories then every level of the organisation must be informed and committed. 

As one journalist told us, his organisation was committed to maintaining total editorial control over their output, which would make an extended back-and-forth between newspaper and a charity impossible. But even if this is the case, there is still the question of why the picture desk would choose to run an inappropriate image in the first place. If media outlets committed themselves to anti-racist training and external critique as many charities have done then the risk of such a faux pas would be minimised significantly.

Images don’t live in isolation. An offending picture may be inappropriate because of the lack of context given. As a participant in Wednesday’s discussion said, ten years ago their charity may very well have used that same offensive image printed by the newspaper. But charities are increasingly committing to improving their image and language policies to move away from stereotypes that brand people as helpless victims without agency. It’s high time news outlets conducted similar audits of their own lexicons and image libraries.

INGOs and the media should pledge to make mutual commitments

Wednesday’s ninety minute roundtable was just the beginning of a longer conversation about how INGOs and journalists can work together to embed principles of anti-racism and decolonisation into their work. However, a few broad suggestions for ways forward were made. 

INGOs need to give editors proper explanations over their choice of language, detailing why it’s important and why it should not be dismissed in favour of outdated terms. For editors with immense time pressure and a million messages in their inboxes, such guidance would make their lives easier and help them to understand the importance of such choices. 

The media, for its part, should commit to reading such guidance and asking questions when they don’t understand. 

There is still a long way to go, and many public figures wish to dismiss this work as ‘wokeness’ and little more than culture war ammunition. But listening to the participants in the roundtable – and seeing everybody engaging in active listening – showed that there is a desire to do better. We will ensure that these conversations continue. 

Register to become an IBT member and get insider access to events and media figures here.

Keep up to date with IBT news

Non-members can sign up to our mailing list here