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Interview: Rights Activists Supplementing 'Meager Meal' From Mainstream Media

Carroll Bogert: "There are NGOs who...have a story to tell, who are gathering news first-hand, and who can...supplement what otherwise is a pretty meager meal from the mainstream media."

Carroll Bogert: "There are NGOs who...have a story to tell, who are gathering news first-hand, and who can...supplement what otherwise is a pretty meager meal from the mainstream media."

Carroll Bogert is the deputy executive director of external relations for the New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch. She has worked on rights abuse cases in more than 70 countries and has a particular expertise in Russia and China. She speaks both Russian and Mandarin.

Prior to HRW, Bogert spent more than 10 years reporting for "Newsweek" magazine, starting off as a stringer in China, later becoming a bureau chief in Moscow, and finally serving as an editor and international correspondent for the magazine in New York.

RFE/RL correspondent Kristin Deasy spoke with Bogert in connection with an essay she wrote titled "Whose News?" that introduces HRW's newly released World Report 2011. Her essay examines the "perils and possibilities" for international NGOs in a downsized media environment that includes fewer and fewer foreign correspondents and less and less international news coverage.

Carroll Bogert
RFE/RL: You imply that advocacy organizations and NGOs may be missing what you call a critical opportunity by not investing more of their resources into information sharing. Are you arguing more for greater crossover between NGOs and traditional media or are you pushing for them to invest more in user-friendly platforms for people living under oppressive regimes to upload their cell-phone footage or other documentation of abuse?

Carroll Bogert:
Well, I think we've certainly seen in a place like Tunisia that people using new media, such as Twitter, to share information and coordinate demonstrations, and bring down a repressive regime -- that's been...extraordinary. I think we're all impressed by how those new media can be helpful to inchoate, unconnected activists working on the ground. But my essay is not really about that subject.

It's really about what the decline in foreign correspondents, especially among the North American and Western European media -- and it's not uniform even across all those countries -- but what the decline in those international news markets means for nongovernmental organizations like Human Rights Watch, where I work. And how NGOs really have to incorporate journalistic skills, journalistic storytelling, acumen, and journalistic tempo, work tempo, into their own work styles.

Because they can't rely on foreign correspondents to tell the story for them anymore, because there aren't as many foreign correspondents as there used to be. And that means that NGOs have to get smarter, and more adept, and more skilled at creating those works of journalism themselves.

RFE/RL: And do you see that evolving into something like the editorial wall that once existed in U.S. newsrooms -- and still allegedly does -- between their editorial content and their news content, something like their advocacy content and their newsmaking content in the NGO world? Is that how that would parse out?

Well, I think the editorial wall that you mentioned is an important one, and I think the public does benefit from clarity, from journalists creating works of journalism without fear or favor, as the old "New York Times" slogan used to go -- you know, that they don't favor one side or another, that they're not taking hook-line-and-sinker the opinions of one side of a story, that they're creating balanced and fair news.

So I'm not arguing against that standard in journalism. I do think it's important. But I also think there are NGOs who have themselves fact-gathering capability on the ground, who do have a story to tell, who are gathering news first-hand, and who can put that information in the public domain to supplement what otherwise is a pretty meager meal, increasingly, from the mainstream media themselves. They just don't have the money to cover some of these stories that they used to.

So I think when nongovernmental organizations make media products, or make pieces of journalism, they need to be clear on who they are or why they've done it. They need to clearly brand those works as their own. And I'm not suggesting that mainstream media should pick up NGO or advocacy groups' work and try to pass it off as their own. Not at all. I think that would be dishonest, and wrong, and would not serve the view of the reader.

I think that NGOs need to be up front about, you know, this is our work, and if the mainstream media pick up, let the viewer know that this comes from Human Rights Watch, or this comes from such-and-such an NGO, and let the viewer decide [if] this information [is] credible or not? They can click through and look at what that NGO is all about and make up their own minds.

RFE/RL: So, in that line of thinking, do you generally support the new Amnesty International news unit they're building? Is that something you're in favor of? Do you think Human Rights Watch might follow suit one day?

I don't know too much about the Amnesty International news unit. I heard they were setting it up and I made reference to it in the essay, but as far as I know it doesn't actually exist yet. But I think it's absolutely a terrific idea. And Human Rights Watch does have a multimedia unit that is staffed by journalists that create works of journalism or digestible information products based on the longer-form reporting of Human Rights Watch.

So we have such a unit already. And I think it's a very important, central, integral part of any NGO's operations in this day and age.

RFE/RL: One of the final points you made -- you took on what you called the clamorous and confusing age of the Internet that we live in these days. And I just want to return to that subject really quickly. I wasn't sure, in reading your piece, whether or not you thought that the Internet age was really, overall, a good thing or a bad thing for the world of NGOs and for the information world as a whole.

I think the technological changes...have been incredibly important and useful to NGOs. They do make it a little more confusing because NGOs do media work really mostly in order to further their advocacy goals. So they're trying to reach policymakers and make social change. And it's harder to know how to do that in the Internet age because the audience has fractured.

So it's not as clear what policymakers are reading. There's just a greater diversity of news sources, so it's harder to create a kind of groundswell in the media, if you will, because there's just more media out there.

But having said that, that might be the negative, but the positive is certainly that NGOs can now go direct to the audience. They can go to audiences directly instead of through the medium of journalism, through the media. And that's very positive. It means they can control their own message. And the reduction in costs of a lot of these tools -- you know, the ability to take video, decent quality video, to edit and upload it, all of that is so much cheaper -- the photography, the audio -- all those multimedia forms are within the reach of NGOs for the first time, and that's great.

RFE/RL: I was wondering if you expect there to be a considerable amount of skepticism or even outright resistance to the idea that NGOs can have news departments and should be taken seriously as such?

I think there is concern about the need to maintain journalistic balance and distance from advocacy groups. There definitely is that feeling, and I'm glad that feeling is there. You know, journalists are paid to be skeptical of all comers.

At the same time, most of the journalists I know are very open to experimentation. They can see that the old ways of doing things are gone, that the commercial model for international newsgathering and distribution is broken, that a nonprofit model that involves nonprofit organizations is inevitable, and that, at the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding.

You know, if Human Rights Watch's information is solid, and credible, and checks out, then people will trust it, journalists will trust it, and the public will trust it. And they will be informed by it. At the end of the day, it's really about what works.

So I think NGOs that do a good job of this, that fairly and accurately report findings from on the ground and package them for people who are not experts -- the general public -- if they do a good job of that, they should be welcomed by the world of media.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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