Why is the Media Unfair to the United Nations?
And What the Organization Is Doing to Make Newsrooms Friendlier
Carnegie Ethics Online Monthly Column
May 30, 2018
Constructive media coverage is essential for the UN. It helps the organization both to raise awareness of neglected crises around the world and to increase visibility for its role in addressing them. In fact, a strong online, press, and TV presence can help mobilize the human, political, and economic resources needed to solve or prevent these situations.
The media also plays an important role in holding the UN publicly accountable for its failures, scandals, and flaws. At the same time, news outlets also tend to judge the organization for what it does not do, rather than for what it achieves. Meanwhile, the digital age has opened up new ways for the UN both to shift this unfavorable focus and to reach out to the public on its own.
Media coverage of the UN has been dominated lately by the recurrent tensions in the UN Security Council, along with this body's inability to stop the mayhem in Syria and Yemen. Similarly, journalists have been riveted by the spreading of cholera in Haiti by UN peacekeepers after the country's 2010 earthquake and the May 2017 election of Saudi Arabia to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Those fiascos, along with the disgraceful cases of sexual abuse and exploitation committed by some Blue Helmets and staff allegations of sexual harassment within the UN, have made headlines around the world—and rightly so.
But the rest of the UN system, and the life-or-death work done by its more than 100,000 personnel around the world, are generally not on the international media's radar. (There are of course exceptions, like a CNN current affairs program hosted by Becky Anderson that covers UN work on the ground on a fairly regular basis.)
"Besides the Security Council, most of what the UN publicly talks about at headquarters is not considered media-worthy," Dr. Robert Zuber, director of the network Global Action to Prevent War and a two-decade observer of UN affairs, told me. "Let's consider an event about families and inclusive societies or consultations on mainstreaming gender perspective into the organization's policies and programs. Who is going to write about that? In many, perhaps most, of the rooms where we attend events, I do not see any UN correspondents present, even though they could do so much to clarify UN policy linkages and priorities."
Referring to the organization's operations in poor, struggling countries, Steve Taravella, senior spokesperson for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), was equally gloomy yet pragmatic:
"Much of what the UN does—on hunger, on poverty, on women's health, on so many things—is just not sexy to a lot of mainstream news outlets, so [attracting and] sustaining media interest is difficult," he explained in a phone interview. "In practice, it means we are forever forced to find new ways to show that our work is relevant, new angles to old stories, because we are competing for the same news space as the day's scandals."
Most UN initiatives to promote peace, well-being, and development worldwide are complex and take a long time to yield tangible results, if and when they do. It is a world away from the demands of the sound-bite driven, 24/7 clickbait headlines that feed shrinking attention spans in the digital age. As Minh-Thu Pham, executive director for policy at the United Nations Foundation, put it, background knowledge is a barrier to entry in terms of consuming and understanding hard UN news.
"We may be talking about the same topics for years because the suffering of many South Sudanese, Congolese, and Syrians, for instance, is not easing off. Media outlets cannot maintain the focus on issues that have been around for decades," said Taravella.
And on the occasions when the painful plight of some of these faraway, different-looking people does improve, the frantic news cycle will not bother to give an account of what comes next.
"A misperception that we have to routinely address is the belief that once a human crisis is over, the work of the UN is over too," said Maher Nasser, director of the Outreach Division of the UN's Department of Public Information, during an interview. "It is far from the truth. The UN sticks around for years, if not decades, to prevent conflict from recurring or to continue the development work that empowers communities to become resilient and avoid falling into the same situation in the future."
The media requires quantifiable, dramatic outcomes to grab the attention of an audience already saturated with information and breaking news. In fact, the UN does generate those kinds of astounding figures: for example, it provides food and assistance to 80 million people in 80 countries and supplies vaccines to 45 percent of the world's children every year.
However, beyond these striking overall numbers, international newsrooms are unlikely to regularly report on the UN's ongoing accomplishments, such as a 33 percent fall in poverty in some slums of Bangladesh brought about with the help of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Even the closing of the successful peacekeeping operation in Cote d'Ivoire did not generate much media interest.
Reporting about Hardship in the Midst of Trump Fever
Furthermore, the frenzy around President Trump and his polarizing policies makes things worse. "One of our major challenges is persuading the U.S. media to devote time and attention to people in need around the world and to our efforts to feed them," said Taravella. "It is hard, especially in the current political climate, to draw attention to non-domestic issues."
"If you turn on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CNN—it's nothing but Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump!"—and very little about the famines in northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, lamented David Beasley, WFP executive director.
The Trump administration is both skeptical about the value of multilateralism (that the UN embodies) and critical of the extensive U.S. financing of the organization. Therefore, today it is more important than ever that the U.S. media deepens its reporting of UN work so that the American public becomes more familiar with the organization's crucial role in addressing global threats such as climate change, as well as crises worldwide.
Occasionally, editors of international outlets see news potential in some of the hundreds of reports and studies issued annually by the organization. That was the case for a UN-commissioned paper that dug into the significant increase of peacekeeping fatalities over the last few years. The report was covered by the The New York Times and The Washington Post, to name just two big outlets.
Another interesting case occurred in the spring of 2016. Saudi Arabia and other countries disputed UN data that the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen had killed and injured hundreds of children there and pressured then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to remove the names of coalition countries from the 2016 annual report by the UN office on Children and Armed Conflict. The episode was reported by Reuters, National Public Radio (NPR), ABC News, and The Guardian, among dozens of large news organizations.
Diplomacy is Boring
When António Guterres became the ninth UN Secretary-General in January 2017, the organization gained a CEO better suited to deal with the challenging questions of reporters—although correspondents have complained that he does not appear nearly often enough in front of the press corps at UN headquarters.
The multilingual Mr. Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who headed the UN refugee agency for a decade, gets across his talking points in a more impassioned display than his low-key predecessor, Ban Ki-moon. Yet all too often, Mr. Guterres has to tiptoe within the discreet limits of diplomacy so that he does not appear too critical towards any of the UN's 193 member states.
"The UN would attract more media attention if the organization admitted its failures, missteps, or shortcomings and recognized that real controversy gets more and better attention than contrived consensus, not least when it compromises its own reputation to protect errant member states, or even UN officials," said journalist Ian Williams in a phone interview. Author of the book Untold: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War, he has covered the UN since 1989.
Another factor in the lack of media appetite to cover UN efforts to prevent and resolve deadly conflict worldwide is that UN diplomacy is quiet by nature and more often than not, a behind-the-scenes affair. So unless details of mediation or peace talks are leaked to journalists, UN efforts to silence the guns rarely generate the kind of juicy material that newspapers and TV editors can use in their breaking news.
An additional challenge the UN faces in its efforts to appeal mainstream media is the sheer size and multitude of emergencies occurring simultaneously today: think about the severe malnutrition in South Sudan, the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, or the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name just three.
"The numbers of people in need keep growing and the public is overflowed with statistics, images and headlines of people suffering in far-off places. Instead of reacting with an outpouring of compassion and support, audiences become numb," said Melissa Fleming, head of communications and chief spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in a phone conversation.
The Landscape of the UN Press Corps at Headquarters
Since advertising is being moved to big digital players like Facebook, Google, and YouTube, the resulting loss of revenue for traditional newspapers and broadcasters has forced many of them to downsize newsrooms and travel budgets. This has obvious implications for the way they cover the UN, both at UN hubs and in the field. For instance, many correspondents at UN headquarters in New York must also cover the United States, which distracts them from their UN reporting.
In addition, the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath made the western media industry and its audiences less interested in hardship in the Global South, since they were feeling the pinch themselves.
"Years ago big newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, The London Times, The Washington Post, and the Boston Globe used to have UN correspondents. Not anymore. The traditional media seems to be losing interest in the world organization," said Gowan.
Today most news organizations covering UN daily affairs from its headquarters in New York do so from a national or regional angle, typically from the U.S. perspective or that of countries involved in some of the world's trouble spots such as the Arab world, Israel, Turkey, and the Korean Peninsula. Just a handful of major outlets are consistently interested in the bigger picture of UN structural dilemmas and its activities and challenges on the ground. Examples include the correspondents of a few news agencies, such as CBS's Pamela Falk, Reuters' Michelle Nichols, and AFP's Carole Landry as well as Voice of America's Margaret Besheer, Aljazeera's James Bays and Whitney Hurst, and Foreign Policy magazine's Colum Lynch.
The increasing lack of interest in UN matters by big traditional news organizations has given rise to small digital outlets focused almost exclusively on the organization's affairs. There is a limited number of online sites (mainly Pass Blue, UN Dispatch, and Inner City Press) that cover both internal UN matters and diplomatic questions, as well as developments concerning the wider UN system. UN humanitarian and development work is frequently scrutinized by the specialized news agencies IRIN, once part of the UN, and Devex, respectively.
In an email exchange, Dulcie Leimbach, founder and editor of PassBlue, argued that the UN could be savvier when dealing with journalists: "Many UN departments and agencies do not make themselves too available to the media. Few hold media briefings; some send out press releases but they are full of jargon, are too technical or just impossible to understand. The press officers often do not answer emails and are generally unhelpful."
Encouraging UN Media Coverage in the Digital Age
The UN realizes that to seduce newsrooms it needs to fully embrace the whole range of communications technologies. Today, most UN agencies like UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund, or OCHA, the organization's humanitarian agency, serve up very professional, polished multimedia content.
Media businesses can readily use these resources without having to set foot in a conflict-ridden country, a famine-stricken region, or an area hit by natural disaster. And all free of charge, thanks to the world's taxpayers and the donors funding UN programs.
"Livestreaming of various kinds can help bring journalists to an event or field location virtually and in that way improve the chances of media coverage," said Martin Nesirky over the phone. He is director of the UN Information Service in Vienna and a former spokesman for the previous Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"To make sure that our information and communication tools are seen by the wider public, we create material that can be used, shared, and amplified," said Nasser, the UN director of outreach. "This happens in different ways and is done by different stakeholders, like the media industry, celebrities, the NGO sector, the academia, and of course, on social media platforms."
The UN can now skip the middle man (i.e. the media) in its efforts to reach the wider public. The organization even produces its own multilingual daily news and radio programs, and runs a 24/7 webstream channel, all accessible online or through a sleek mobile app.
Yet UN agencies are well aware that they cannot dismiss news organizations as one of their most powerful amplifiers. "The traditional media is not dying. We could not do our job without the role of traditional newsrooms to help spread the message. Of course, we also use the capabilities of digital media tools to reach out to our audiences directly, but it is not done as a substitute for the press and broadcasters," said Fleming.
As the UNHCR communications charter sets out, the Agency creates "news that journalists will trust and use. We release news that is timely, relevant and rigorously researched. Our spokespeople are trusted sources who not only react to media demands but also partner with journalists to help them cover refugee issues in greater depth and with unique access."
Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy's UN diplomatic reporter, welcomes the efforts made by UN agencies to encourage more media coverage. Yet he is somewhat skeptical. "The media cannot rely on the institutions it covers to generate its reporting," he said in a phone conversation. "There is no need to have a militant attitude to this, since a lot of the material the UN puts out, like photos and video assets from the world's trouble spots, are useful to reporters. Yet journalists should not look to the UN to determine what stories or issues they need to cover. That is a reporter's job."
Angela Corbalan, head of communications at the UN-based Better Than Cash Alliance, explained the importance of strategic media targeting: "To raise interest from journalists on niche issues like the impact of mobile money on the rural poor or biometric technology on refugees, we need to be highly targeted. We only pitch tailored newsworthy content to media outlets whose audiences can really make a difference in strategic countries."
In addition to its increasing digital means, the UN continues to run creative campaigns and publicity stunts to prompt the interest of the media and inspire the public. Two cases well-covered by news outlets worldwide were the WFP's tattooed body of a famous soccer player, and the UNHCR's portraits of UK households that opened their doors to refugees.
Social Media as a Force for Good
As already pointed out by the UN's outreach director Maher Nasser, social media is an important device in the UN's communications toolbox. It can fill the gap left by the media when it fails to cover important issues, such as the effects on women and girls living with obstetric fistula. A strong presence on these platforms is particularly effective to reach out to young people, who may not read or watch traditional news outlets.
Social media is also useful to clear up public misconceptions around the UN, some of them fed by the media's focus on negative news around the organization. "We routinely put out posts that explain the value of international cooperation, as well as content that corrects myths about the organization, especially on the UN's budget, which is actually quite cost effective compared to what countries would spend working alone on global issues," emailed Nancy Groves, chief of social media at the UN Department of Public Information.
In addition, social media networks can be used to debunk misinformation about some of the problems the organization works to address. According to the Ethical Journalism Network, the refugee crisis and global migration is one of the topics where journalists often fail to tell the full story and routinely fall into propaganda traps.
"It is important in refugee reporting to keep facts and balance at the center of the story. As the saying goes, you are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts," declared Christopher Boian, UNHCR's spokesperson in Washington, in a phone interview.
In fact, the most important frame of action that galvanizes UN activities today is based on hard data. It is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a country-driven UN-led scheme to end poverty, create prosperity, and protect the planet, using key targets and indicators. The Global Goals, as they are also known, present a 15-year window of opportunity to prove to press and broadcasters that what the UN does is not only relevant to their audiences, but to the media business itself.
UN Women, the organization's main entity working for the empowerment of girls and women, set an interesting example. In 2016 it initiated a partnership around gender equality (Goal 5) with 72 news outlets from around the world committed to disrupt gender stereotypes and biases in their reporting.
Success does not sell well. Scandals and failures do—today perhaps more than ever, due to the financial strains and fierce competition endured by the media industry in the digital age.
There is little doubt that the United Nations will continue to make headlines and breaking news mostly for the wrong reasons. But the organization is seizing the digital revolution to portray itself and the suffering of millions to editors, and directly to the public, in greater and better ways unthinkable years ago. What remains to be seen is whether this will generate the broader and fairer media coverage that the world organization deserves.