Calling for Coalitions: A Look at Successful Media and Advocacy Partnerships

August 14, 2020

A group of Columbia University students recently published a report with the Gates Foundation researching four different collaborations across the globe between media and advocacy groups to better understand how the two can work together while staying true to its own mission.

By Jack Truitt

The COVID-19 pandemic is decimating industries in both public and private sectors, and the news media, whose newspapers have already lost half their employees since our last economic crisis, is reeling once again. News organizations big and small are adapting to shrinking budgets in addition to eroding trust in their work and a media environment in constant flux from technological pressures. But news is still made every day whether or not there is a newsroom there to cover it, and in today's world, there seems to be more of the former with less of the latter.

In the face of all this, the role of donor-provided funding is growing as news organizations, particularly civic-minded ones, look to outside groups for cash that they can no longer provide for on their own. Unlike the sponsors you see at the end of a PBS broadcast this funding often comes with a few strings attached, visible or invisible. Donors want to know that their funding has an impact and that the ideas they believe in will be taken up and change narratives and policies. These relationships, more akin to partnerships, will likely become more common as the ongoing economic crisis continues to take its toll.

The report, “Calling for Coalitions: Building Partnerships between Journalists and Advocates”, examines four case studies of these kinds of relationships between civil society groups and the news media, each in a different country and with a different scope:

  • Tackling the rise of health misinformation in Nigeria with the fact-checking organization Africa Check, which is pioneering new collaborative structures to scale-up their work.
  • Highlighting gender in the media as the Nation Media Group partners with the Fuller Project to endow a gender desk in the largest newspaper in Kenya.
  • Advocating for better mining practices in South Africa where Oxpeckers created a data-informed environmental journalism project called #MineAlert.
  • Combating governmental corruption in Peru where the IDL Reporteros news team brought together journalists and civil society groups to help uncover the largest political corruption scandal in Latin American history.

The group began the work in January planning to travel to each respective case’s country and conduct research in the field, but the Covid-19 pandemic required the work to be done remotely. Ultimately the research consisted of dozens of interviews with journalists, members of civil society organizations, donor organizations, academics, and government officials from around the world. The primary questions driving the research concerned the partnerships themselves—how each partnership began? How did it function? What were its successes and challenges?—on the impact of those partnerships—how does each organization define impact? What impact has it had or hope to have?—and on how the answers to those questions could inform and provide some best practices for any future partnerships between advocacy groups and the news media.

Key findings:

  • There is no one rule or model for partnership between media and advocacy groups, but they are almost always built on pre-existing familiarity and/or trust between the organizations involved.
  • Training and capacity building is a natural area to establish more formal partnerships. Not only is this type of collaboration easy to define and work together on, but it also provides the best return on investment as the tools provided by training remain if funding is cut, and the rubbing of shoulders in something like a workshop can create a starting point for new relationships down the road.
  • The most common areas of informal collaboration were the sharing of information and amplification of media outlets' reach through cross-publishing of content.
  • Journalists’ ideas of impact are hard to quantify, and sometimes at odds with that of donors and civil society organizations. For example, the gender desk in Kenya was successful in increasing the numbers of stories featuring women and women sources, but equality of representation is more than sheer numbers and the stories themselves still suffered from problems related to gender-bias.   
  • Journalists and their outlets are quick to make clear that they are not advocates themselves, but the line between journalism and advocacy is as blurry as ever. Advocacy cannot happen in isolation, and advocacy groups rely on journalists for the work they do.

Some recommendations based on these findings:

  • In any partnership, no matter how informal, there should be a full understanding of roles and boundaries between all parties.
  • Training and capacity building should be emphasized as an area for more formal partnerships, but there are also more indirect ways for advocacy groups and donors to support journalists. One example is working to improve access to information and reliable data in countries where that access and data are limited, something we found to be an obstacle to investigative journalism that relies on this kind of information.
  • Advocacy groups should do what journalists cannot. Journalists must work to uncover problems and inform the public about them, while advocacy groups should focus on arguing for solutions to these problems and mobilizing the public to take action.

As budgets decrease while the need for high-quality civic journalism grows in a world going through a global pandemic, this research may be looking at the future of many non-profit news organizations. It may also provide some guidance and framework for future partnerships that help, rather than hinder, the goals of independent media as well as advocacy groups while allowing both to remain true to their mission.

The report “Calling for CoalitionsBuilding Partnerships between Journalists and Advocates” was edited by Yi Chen, Gregory Francois, Ritubhan Guatam, Shruti Kedia, Michelle Meza, Mingqi Song, Jack Truitt, and Emily Wymer, graduate students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, with Professor Anya Schiffrin, member of CMDS’ Advisory Board serving as advisor. The report was published in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Media Partnerships.
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