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Published: February 17, 2015

Journalists and aid agencies: the opportunities and limitations of embedding

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On Tuesday 10 February the Frontline Club, in partnership with the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), hosted a stimulating discussion with an expert panel entitled ‘Embedding with Aid Agencies: Editorial Integrity and Security Risks’. The event was hosted at the Frontline Club, a media club founded in honour of colleagues who had died in the field with Frontline News Television. The Frontline Club attracts diverse members who share a passion for journalism, current humanitarian affairs and security with their safety initiative.

The event was chaired by Ben Parker (@BenParker140) founder and CEO of IRIN. The specialist panel featured: Polly Markandya (@pollylondon), the Head of Communications at Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), Lisa Reilly (@EISF1), the Executive Coordinator of GISF, Michelle Betz (@michellebetz), a former journalist, who now works on media development in post-conflict countries, and Siobhan Sinnerton (@SSinnerton), the commissioning editor for news and current affairs at Channel 4 News.

Aid and journalism were both described as ‘big businesses’ with competing agendas and economic interests. Shrinking media budgets combined with aid agency competition for donor money has resulted in the two increasingly working together, but for separate interests. Partnerships often result in deeper liability and security issues, and aid agencies are often left to carry the details of logistics and safety, creating problems between the two and intensifying the levels of mistrust.

Security and logistics for the visiting journalist are not the only issue for NGOs. Lisa discussed how aid agencies do not often use hard security measures; they are not armed and work extremely hard to gain the acceptance of local communities. NGOs are very reliant on how they are perceived, if NGOs are ‘seen with a journalist and the journalist is publishing a certain story or talking to the opposition,’ this can affect the safety and security of NGO field staff in the long term.

Notwithstanding, when both journalists and aid agencies are transparent and honest with each other, these partnerships can be mutually beneficial. Transparency and honesty are essential when journalists embed with aid agencies in order for the stories to make an impact and for the aid agency to benefit as well. Journalists should respect the NGO they are ‘tagging along’ with by being honest about what they will write about, while simultaneously, NGOs should respect the journalist and their story by disclosing what support they can realistically provide in the field. Siobhan emphasised this point with an example of Channel 4 News’ Unreported World, where a team were successfully embedded with Handicap International to increase awareness around disabled Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The programme increased the NGO’s donations as well.

For an embedment to be successful, both side’s expectations need to be managed. Polly explained how the NGO must understand that they may be only a small part of the story the journalist will publish. Equally, the journalist can be a nuisance to the overworked field staff who wish to carry out their tasks. To ensure success, expectations must be managed between the communications department at headquarters and the staff on the ground.

There is a balance of security risks, story impact, trust and transparency that need to be addressed between journalists and aid agencies as they increasingly partner together to tell the world’s most devastating stories. This big discussion needs to happen before the journalist goes to the field to minimise security risks for themselves and for field staff.




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