NGOs and the media in Russia: a discussion
What do NGOs have to do to get the media to write about them as professionals? Likewise, what does the non-profit sector expect from media editors? Regional journalists and heads of NGOs recently came together with the Russian Government to try and come up with some answers to these questions.
Round 1: What issues should be written about and how
Maksim Polyakov, Deputy Chief Editor of the international internet magazine “7×7” and a winner in the “NGO pro” competition:
“The aim of the media is not only to create a positive agenda, including on an NGO theme, but also to help in resolving problems. The criteria by which journalists choose a topic can be summarised thus. Does talking about it “touch a nerve”? Do readers tell their family and colleagues what they’ve found out through the media? Is there anything to be gained from discussing a particular issue and will doing so provoke a reaction?”
Anna Belokryltseva, Director of the “Studio Dialogue” NGO, founder and head of “Address of Compassion” charity, and a member of its Guardianship Council:
“In order for journalists to treat NGOs as professional organisations, non-profit bodies need to have a systematic approach to their work, not just helping people on impulse. What are the difficulties in gathering material on NGOs? It is important to tell a journalist a story in the first person. Not when colleagues speak about a person or someone whom he/she has helped (what they say, both clearly and predictably), but when he/she talks about himself/herself.
And, of course, openness is also important. I ask personal questions, e.g. on motivation, such as why did this person decide to help disabled or elderly people or children? A lot of people don’t like questions such as these, but a story about a professional without them is nigh on impossible. I also encourage NGOs to always have their main goals in mind. Construction site workers can be asked what they’re doing and one of them will answer “I’m laying bricks” and another “I’m building a church”. What’s important here is that organisations not only tell the media about the events they’ve organised and the problems they’re currently faced with in terms of accessing funding, but also what they do and the purpose behind their work”.
Alexander Spivak, Chair of the National Charity for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children:
“What does being a professional in business mean? Answer: someone who works effectively. What does a well-run State institution look like? It is a client-orientated entity which fulfils its core responsibilities. We don’t just expect solid and reliable work from NGOs but also some success in changing the system.
I believe that coverage of the work of professionals in the NGO sector as part of “NGO pro” should be “split”. Firstly, there needs to be business journalism that encompasses commercial models managed by NGOs, i.e. developing a business approach to their work. And if this takes off and the Russian Business Club and “Kommersant” write about it then the people who read it will realise that NGOs have a structure and well-established system just like theirs and are not simply urban idiots or “volunteers winding down after work”. Another approach is (journalistic material) about people’s lives. Many people are less interested in Apple’s work systems than they are in the life of Steve Jobs.
Marina Glushenkova, Editor of the Analytical Programmes Department at the “Nika” television company in the city of Kaluga and winner in the “NGO pro” competition:
“Many people are misled by the term “Non-Governmental Organisation”. Oh, they still need money do they? I argue with my colleagues saying dismissively “What are these grown-ups actually doing in these NGOs?” They find solutions to problems without help from the State by looking for funding. Aren’t these people really social managers? We journalists tend to write more about people’s personal stories. However, preparing material on NGOs in business journalism should be the same as for a working “enterprise” which is overseen by managers in the same way as other bodies with different forms of ownership are”.
Maria Mokina, Deputy Director of the Directorate of Socio-Political Broadcasting at OTP:
“Give journalists a chance. NGOs have received reasonably wide coverage during the last two years, not counting foreign agent related issues. The media will eventually realise what issues to cover and how they should write about them. OTP also covers human stories about NGO leaders – they speak like experts on a talk show and provide information on NGO events – the range is very broad. Yes, this must involve different types of media, including business ones. I also agree with those who say that journalists need to learn how to uncover important social issues affecting NGOs and to acknowledge that NGOs are not just involved in charity work and help children but are also successful in resolving housing and public utility issues, as well as promoting human rights etc.”
Who should make the effort to get the information
“It’s important to teach NGOs to talk about themselves to journalists. We often say to organisations – guys, understand where we’re coming from. We have a busy daily schedule with a number of urgent projects on the go. You’ve sent us an e-mail about an event – perhaps it’s got lost. Please don’t hesitate to ring and invite us but also consider listening to webinars and attending seminars to get more people involved in your work moving forward. If you take the time to work with us, the spin-offs will increase considerably”.
Ksenia Agarkova, Vice-President of the regional disability organisation “The School of Experts” and a winner in the “NGO pro” competition:
“We started to work closely with Lipetsk Radio’s editorial staff after they brought along some journalists to one of our charity events. They were keen to take part and we immediately realised that here was an excellent opportunity to tell a lot of people what we do. We have now established a media hub and will be issuing press releases prior to future events. We have a young team and know how to interact with people. However, there are more well-established NGOs whose leaders don’t always understand why and how they should give interviews and why they need the skills to do so. Our support centre is currently working on this”.
Tatiana Tyukmaeva, the person behind the “Public Interest” television programme at GTRK’s “Yugoria” TV station (Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District) and a winner in the “NGO pro” competition:
“Not all journalists are prepared to write positive stories or talk in general about NGOs. I’ve been doing the “Public Interest” programme for a year now and I’m the only one in our company who’s making films about them. Many of my colleagues make programmes about State procurement or some other financial topic. Financial matters are always the main focus. Money from television companies is needed for subjects such as NGOs”.
Evgenia Kondratyuk, Director of the “St Belgorod Against Child Cancer” charity and winner in the “NGO pro” competition:
“In the Belgorod region at least, we have no problems in covering the work of NGOs. Our problems were solved once we learned how to write our own press releases by working with journalists on a partnership basis. Our charity now has a press office. Much is being written about us as well as adverts publicising our work, so much so that I even have to hold back if it seems we are getting too much coverage! If an NGO has a story to tell, the media will respond.
“How do we motivate journalists? After having attended so many theme-related seminars, conferences and workshops, journalists always come back with lots of enthusiasm and ideas which are usually exhausted within a month. A regular opportunity to take part in something like an internship in “Business Matters” in Moscow and see at first-hand how people work up and produce stories would be an excellent idea. I would certainly recommend this to my colleagues.
A little financial help, such as reimbursing travel and accommodation expenses, can help in reshaping the work of global mass media. On their return, journalists may want to involve themselves in an NGO topic and not just write stories that “sell well”.
Yuri Belanovsky, Head of the “Danilovtsi” volunteer movement:
“People have long been telling me that the media is mainly a business to be regarded in the same way as a shop. You can be allowed to display a placard, set up a stand or hold a small event decorated with balloons. With the exception of socially-orientated media outlets which can be counted on the fingers of one hand, this is exactly how editorial staff operate.
Social responsibility for each media type is determined by the views of the chief editor. In my opinion, there are many greedy and non-greedy editors. A miserable bit of “wall” in their “shop” for the greedy while the non-greedy ones are prepared to provide it. We have a journalist who’s been working with us for four years. I believe we send the media excellent material, not stuff which has been written on someone’s knees on a trolleybus. However, our lives were made easier once we stopped expecting something from the media and being surprised when even our friends refused to publish our material. We received promises along the lines of “we can help you” from a number of media outlets. In the end, it all came to nothing, although we were at fault because the “theme wasn’t very good”. Indeed, what can you possibly write about volunteers who sculpt elephants or push babies around in prams? There are stories of dismembered bodies, grandmothers being killed for their property, lots of emotive topics and so on. So what does it say about your professionalism if you can’t unearth a story and write a good piece about a locksmith? Is it just about coming up with something that sells well?”
Discussions about professionalism in the NGO sector were held on the same day as the presentation ceremony for special prize winners in the “NGO pro” competition for regional media outlets organised by the Agency of Social Information (ASI), the V. Potanin Charitable Foundation and the “STADA Group in Russia”, with support from the Russian Federation Council on Issues of Guardianship in the Social Sphere. Experts gathered in the conference room of Government House with discussions led by ASI’s Director, Elena Topoleva. ASI invites our readers to continue the conversation.
How would you like the media to write about your organisation (if you’re an NGO)? What sort of information do you regularly need about the non-profit sector, and what stuff do you get tired of throwing in the waste paper basket if you work in a media editorial office? Let us know by going on our Facebook pages and on “VKontakte”. We will include the most interesting comments in a separate publication and in a newsletter to all our subscribers. That way, thousands of people will be able to hear you.
Tatiana Evlampieva, Deputy Head of the Department for the Development of the NGO Sector at the Russian Ministry of Economic Development and former head of the dance4life project team in the “Focus Media” Foundation:
“How often do I see articles about the best locksmiths or electricians? In this respect, I do not see any “discrimination” on behalf of journalists towards NGOs – they don’t write articles about other types of occupation. However, I’m pleased we have made a start and are not simply writing about NGOs and what they’re doing. I believe we should give as much publicity as possible to what it was like to take part in the “NGO pro” competition”.
Ivan Glushkov, Deputy Director General for Development at the “STADA” pharmaceutical company:
“I can give an example from my own work. When the Counter-Sentencing Bill was being discussed, journalists called and asked me if we would be putting up our prices. I said no, to which they replied that they would not be publishing my comment. They had to be negative. It is bad enough that shipment of drugs is being stopped but the traders, the scumbags, are raising prices.
Yes, journalists have to resolve problems. They don’t just write about the bad things. The issue is that there are still people who are doing something about a problem but are unsure whether their solutions will work. The same goes for difficulties faced by NGOs. I am tired of explaining to my three children that I have to live in this country. I have to live and build something here as the notion that the grass is always greener on the other side can be illusory. I very much hope that “NGO pro” will help, among other things, in fulfilling my personal ambition.