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The Role of the Media in Development Aid

So USAID asked me to speak at one of their conferences last week about the role of media in development. Being utterly unqualified for this task did not stop me from doing it, and below is an adaptation of my little talk!

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Think of all all the companies you know that didn’t exist 30 years ago and are now worth more than a billion dollars. It’s easy, right? Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Whole Foods, Uber, we could go around the room for ages.

Now think of all the development NGOs or national nonprofits that didn’t exist 30 years ago and now get more than, say, 100 million in donations.* Doctors without Borders: 1971. Human Rights Watch: 1978. Amnesty International: 1961. Greenpeace: 1969. And those aren’t even the big-big ones. Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, Care International, we’re talking World War II or before.

And what’s weird about this comparison is that in those 30 years, we’ve made significant progress some really hard problems. A lot of countries that were desperately poor three decades ago aren’t now. But, somehow, we haven’t created social institutions at the same pace we’ve created profit-making ones.

I think this is, at least partly, the media’s fault. The media struggles, has always struggled, to tell good news, to tell slow news, and to tell stories that happen more than once. That’s exactly what social progress consists of, and it’s why an alarming percentage of people think we now live in a world that is poorer and more dangerous than it used to be, neither of which are true.

But I think this is getting better! If you want to understand the role of media in development, you have to understand how it is changing.

1. Social media is making traditional media obsolete

The first change is the most obvious: Social media. We all know that Twitter and Facebook allow organizations to communicate directly with their audiences and bypass traditional media. However you feel about Kony 2012 or the ice bucket challenge, they’re not the last nonprofits that are going to go viral. The media only came to those organisations, those issues, after the rest of the world already knew about them.

This direct communication makes the media increasingly obsolete, and gives institutions the opportunity to play on their turf. Last year the World Bank did an analysis of all the pdfs on their website and found that 87 percent of them had never been cited; 31 percent had never been downloaded at all. If the World Bank wants to get its research, its conclusions, more widely talked about, it doesn’t need to call the New York Times or the BBC. It needs to record Ted Talks, to make animated explainers, to bundle its research into infographics, tweets, summaries for distinct audiences. For organizations with something to say, the media isn’t an amplifier for telling their story, it’s just part of the background noise.

2. Traditional media is getting slower

There was this story in the New Yorker in September about how Salt Lake City beat homelessness. The city was spending $20,000 per homeless person on emergency services, extra policing, jail time, temporary shelters. A free apartment cost just $8,000 per year. Salt Lake City decided to simply give each homeless person a free apartment, no (well, few) questions asked. The homeless population fell by 72 percent.

This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic innovation that development is made of. Since it came out, the story has gotten tons of attention. I mean, the Daily Show did a segment on it.

In journalism school they used to tell us the old cliche that ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history‘. For media companies these days, it seems like that’s not enough anymore. ‘27 Maps that Explain America‘, ‘What We Know About Inequality (in 14 Charts)‘, these are not attempts to tell you something new, but to reframe, contextualize, what you already know.

When Vox media, one of the most prominent digital-native startups, got an hourlong interview with President Obama, they barely asked him anything about current events. They asked him about the state of the world, what Americans get wrong about foreign aid, why he’s been so polarizing. They specifically designed the interview to be evergreen, reflective, to offer insight to the news cycle rather than stay in front of it.

For development practitioners, this should be hugely encouraging. You don’t have to package your organisation around a news event, include those cheesy anecdotes (Sally walks two hours every day to school…’) at the beginning of your annual report. You can tell a longer, slower, larger story (‘why weren’t the roads paved? It all starts in 1978…’)—and the media will help you.

 

3. The line between media and NGOs is blurring.

Last February, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times left to work for a ‘nonprofit news organization‘ explicitly dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system. Since it launched, its stories have appeared in The New Republic, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post.

It’s not just newspapers, not just criminal justice reporting. ProPublica, a progressive nonprofit, works with NPR to do stories on pharma company payments to doctorsgovernment cuts to workman’s comp (yes, there are charts). As early as 2005, ABC News was running stories produced by International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention NGO.

It goes the other way too. Human Rights Watch has deliberately started doing work that is, if you took the logo off it, indistinguishable from journalism.

 

All three of these changes tell the same story: The media is getting squeezed into a narrower and narrower band. As revenue shrinks and newsrooms atrophy, the things that journalism used to do—publicize institutions, bring attention to societal changes, retell press releases—are being done around it.

So if development NGOs want to get their message out, they need to meet the media where it is and where it’s going. Get stories directly to the people you’re trying to reach, let the media come afterwards. Tell the story of your issue—homelessness, teen pregnancy, water scarcity—not your organization. And if you don’t like the way the media is telling your story, tell it yourself.

 

* I stole this thought experiment from Gerald Chertavian, the guy who runs the charity Year Up, who I interviewed for a story the week before the talk.

 

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Filed under America, Development, Serious, Work

What If Social Media Makes You Smarter?

Every year I read Dave Eggers’s ‘Best American Nonrequired Reading.’ It’s a collection of essays, articles, speeches and comics with no thematic similarities other than that they’re all awesome.

The 2011 edition includes a speech by William Deresiewicz (whoever that is) to The United States Military Academy at West Point called ‘Solitude and Leadership’. For some reason, this passage made me feel simultaneously guilty and inspired:

A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked.

The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there.

In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: The more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself. […]

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. […]

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all of the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea.

By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, the defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.  

I really struggle with this. I have the attention span of a fruit fly, and whenever I’m in a situation where stimulus isn’t readily available—waiting in line, riding the bus—I usually create my own by reading a book or listening to a podcast. It’s vanishingly rare for me to just sit there and think. 

I had an unpleasant airport experience the other day in which I basically waited around for about five hours without knowing whether I would be leaving Argentina or would have to stay another day. If I wasn’t reading this essay collection, Deresiewicz’s among them, I would have been round-and-round fixating on my immediate surroundings—Am I going to get a flight? Will my luggage be there when I arrive? Should I change my currency now, or should I wait until a departure time is announced? Blah Blah Blah. Without stimulus, my brain skips analysis and goes straight to anxiety.

It’s in those types of situations that I find I need new ideas and stories the most. Absorbing new information prevents me from pointlessly fixating on my immediate surroundings.  It’s become kind of a compulsion: The bus is an hour late? Where’s my earbuds?!

What Deresiewicz is saying is that information isn’t osmosis. You can’t just absorb ideas and forget about them until the next flight delay. Information has to be summarized, analysed and discussed to have any effect.

In that excerpt, I edited out a sentence where Deresiewicz says ‘You simply cannot [think for yourself] in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod’.

While its probably true that constant interruption of any kind is bad for concentration, I disagree with the implication that social media and the internet are keeping us from deeply engaging with new ideas.

Personally, when I put down my book or pop out by earbuds, I don’t begin a systematic analysis of the information I’ve just absorbed. I just fixate on my immediate surroundings and start gazing ahead in my day until I find something to be anxious about — What am I going to have for dinner? Will it rain while I’m biking home? Etc.

The only way I can concentrate on an idea is to reconfigure it for a conversation, an e-mail or, yes, a fucking Tweet.

Summarizing an idea for a specific target audience (a whip-smart friend, a simpleton co-worker, an anonymous blog commenter) is how a lot of us discover what and how we think.  If you needed to sum up John Rawls’s ‘Theory of Justice’ in 140 characters, you’d have to think pretty hard about it. If you wanted to tell all your Facebook friends why you liked reading Moby Dick and they would too, you’d have to have a reasonably good grasp of it.

I agree with Deresiewicz that concentration, and the deliberate solitude that implies, is an important characteristic in a leader. But technology doesn’t prevent us from concentrating. It forces us to.

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Filed under Books, Personal, Serious