A new era? The rise and rise of advocacy collaborations in journalism

September 24, 2020 • Ethics and Quality, Recent • by


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on industries across the globe, the already vulnerable news media has not been spared. The outbreak has intensified the technological upheaval and other challenges facing the industry, causing already dramatically reduced revenues to decline further and exacerbating distrust in its work. This is likely to increase the trend of donor funding, as news organisations are forced to consider new ways to operate within shrinking budgets.

Working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, our team of Columbia University graduate students have published a report examining the relationship between journalists and advocacy groups. The Calling for Coalitions: Building Partnerships between Journalists and Advocates study, seeks to provide best practices and recommendations aimed at these increasingly common donor-funded partnerships.

A tale of four countries

The report looks at four important case studies:

  • Fact-checking organisation, Africa Check’s, pioneering collaborative approach to tackling the rise in health misinformation in Nigeria.
  • Nation Media Group’s partnership with the Fuller Project to highlight gender imbalance in the media and create a gender desk at Kenya’s largest newspaper.
  • Africa’s investigative environmental journalism centre, Oxpeckers’, #MineAlert data-supported project, advocating for better mining practices in South Africa.
  • IDL Reporteros’ news team’s collaboration of journalists and civil society groups to combat government corruption in Peru. This partnership helped uncover the largest political corruption scandal in Latin American history.

Through dozens of interviews with journalists, civil society organisations, academics, donors, and government officials, we were able to identify some of the key ingredients of successful partnerships and draw invaluable lessons from our case studies.

Making collaborations work

Here is what we found out about these collaborations:

  • While there is no one rule or model for partnerships between media and advocacy groups, they are almost always built on pre-existing relationships and/or trust between the organisations involved.
  • Training is an effective starting point for formal partnerships. Not only is this type of collaboration easy to define and implement, it also provides the best return on investment and opportunities for future alliances.
  • Sharing information and extending media outlets’ reach through cross-publishing is the most common area of informal collaborations.
  • It is hard to measure journalistic impact, and journalists’ ideas of what constitutes impact are sometimes at odds with those of donors and civil society organisations.
  • Journalists and their outlets are quick to declare that they are not advocates themselves, but the interdependence between advocacy and journalism is blurring the line.

Here are some recommendations for successful partnerships that do not compromise journalistic standards:

  • In any partnership, no matter how informal, there should be a full understanding and agreement of roles and boundaries.
  • Training is an important ingredient in formal partnerships, but there are also more indirect ways for advocacy groups and donors to assist journalists. One example is strengthening investigative journalism by improving access to information and reliable data in countries where this is limited.
  • Advocacy groups should do what journalists cannot. Journalists must work to uncover problems and inform the public about them. Advocacy groups should focus on arguing for solutions to these problems and mobilising the public to take action.

We believe our research may help to point the way forward for many non-profit news organisations. We hope our work will 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 ‘Calling for Coalitions: Building Partnerships between Journalists and Advocates’ report was edited by Columbia Journalism School and School of International and Public Affairs graduate students, Yi Chen, Gregory Francois, Ritubhan Guatam, Shruti Kedia, Michelle Meza, Mingqi Song, Jack Truitt, and Emily Wymer, under the supervision of Professor Anya Schiffrin.

Image by AK Rockefeller from Flickr / Flickr license  

Opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of the EJO.

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