WEBLOG | Voluntourism, advocacy vs news, & getting fired

Barely a day goes by where a cause of some sort doesn’t call for our attention, action or cash. The immediacy and reach of the internet has intensified this, and – as Sarah and Hannah Spyksma discuss in this weblog – are contributing to a blurring of what we call and consume as news versus that we engage with as advocacy. They also talk voluntourism, Humanitarians of Tinder and this one time Sarah sort of got fired.

S: You wrote a chapter on the increasingly blurred line between advocacy and journalism for the forthcoming book Don’t dream it’s over: Reimagining journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s on a slightly different tack, but what are your thoughts on Louise Linton, the Hollywood-based Scot who recently published a memoir about her time volunteering in Zambia? The Telegraph ran an excerpt at the start of July, which led to Linton being strung up by commentators on social (and then other) media, who expressed outrage at what they felt was a white saviour account, and also that there were a lot of holes in her story. As someone who’s studied international development in a fairly critical environment, reading the excerpt made me wince – as have (quite amazing) sites like Humanitarians of Tinder, and the barbiesavior Instagram account, that a friend pointed me to recently. Although, those are jaw-dropping in a more hilarious way.

H: Interestingly, the article link is no longer live on the Telegraph website. Says a lot about the response, doesn’t it? Since I haven’t read the original piece I’m hesitant to comment on what exactly Linton has written. But it’s pretty naive to assume that when you write something like that these days, the conversation won’t reach the people you’re writing about. This is the thing about globalisation; despite uneven access to technologies, as a whole communities increasingly have the capacity to challenge existing communicative power structures through the internet. That includes ‘white saviour’ travel accounts. Geographic isolation or distance is no longer a shield to hide behind in terms of publishing. If you’re in Zambia, or in the case of my MA research Vanuatu, then you can join an online conversation when someone writes about you from Hollywood. And this means that there is space for people to begin to have a certain sense of agency over the way they’re talked about. Communication isn’t one-way anymore. And as the social media backlash to Linton’s piece shows, communities don’t need or want someone to speak for them. Classic othering doesn’t fly in a connected world, the internet is too nuanced for that.

“Geographic isolation or distance is no longer a shield to hide behind in terms of publishing”

As for Humanitarians of Tinder and barbiesavior: LOL and WOW and cringe. I have to say, in my time on Tinder I did see quite a few of those humanitarian photos but I’m not even going to get into where or when that was… (and for the record those images are not the way to get someone to swipe right IMHO!) Regardless, I am cautious of assuming to know these people’s situations also. Playing devil’s advocate for a second here – is it just as bad to be taking someone’s dating profile and using it to make fun of them? A little schadenfreude, no?

S: Ha, yes I agree! And I’d like to see the stats on how well those profiles do. Hey, I’m Chad and I’m looking for some humanitarian action, if you know what I mean. I bet they clean up. Thinking on these things has reminded me of a job I had in my early 20s, travelling around college campuses in the US, promoting a programme that took volunteers to places like Costa Rica and Thailand. They’d spend one week doing things like digging wells in a local community, and the other doing ‘adventure’ activities like whitewater rafting. Sounded like a great idea at the time as far as I was concerned: travel around the States for three months, each week on a different campus in a different town, promoting a programme in which students could go help people out, and also have adventures. Wins all round! Turns out it was more of a sales role than I thought, and also highly dodgy, as the company was essentially passing us off as students to hawk their programme, which is illegal. I wasn’t inclined to pressure college students into paying a mandatory 10% deposit on this experience of a lifetime on the spot, and once I cottoned onto the dodginess of the set-up, lost even more interest. I’m still not sure if I quit or was fired, but either way I lasted a month. The day of the call that ended the damn thing I was in Charlottesville, Virginia – and after it found myself watching a fortuitously timed free George Clinton concert, wondering what the heck to do next.

Returning from memory lane, I’m glad for that experience – which I now understand to have been promoting voluntourism, a phenomenon that is gross on so many levels. I’m glad for it because, when I later came to study international development it help me keep in check this whole notion of some sections of the world as needing to be saved, and others as being in a position to save them – which, it’s no secret, has been a pretty strong driver of aid work over the 70-odd years that’s been a thing. (I also grew up in the Pentecostal church, which contributes to this, but that’s a tale for another time). Which brings me back to a point of some sort, and that is that: doing good is complicated. Digital platforms offer much to those wanting to challenge power dynamics that leave many fucked, but using the medium as a platform for advocacy can also be problematic. In your chapter for Reimagining you address the issue of charity organisations essentially writing advertorial for news outlets – so, maybe placing a field report related to the work they do on a news site – but that these sorts of ‘stories’ aren’t always clearly marked as such. Can you talk a bit about this? Pros and cons, including the potentially negative impacts, in terms of leading the audience to believe the content is straight-up news?

H: Wow what a story, Sarah! As a side note, do you think all humanitarians of Tinder are called Chad? Now I’d love to see the stats on that! Kidding. I digress… but actually, this is a good place to start because this reminds me of my own humanitarian and voluntourism story that actually leads to answering your question. Oh the irony. To summarise, in mid-2011 as a newbie journalist, and having never sailed before, I paid to join a boat full of environmentalists sailing across the Pacific Ocean. I somehow found myself crewing this 72-foot yacht with seven others, including a diver named Chad, interviewing i-Kiribati locals about plastic pollution on their islands and then sailing to Hawai’i. I wrote a few stories about the people I met along the way, but more than my work outputs the whole experience really got me thinking about how, through media, we perceive others who are different from us. How can I make people care about the pollution and sea level rise in Kiribati – and is this even my responsibility, or right, to do so? – when we can’t even have a reasonable dialogue about climate change in New Zealand? I knew these people existed, and had seen their lives with my own eyes, but to many, those islands are an insignificant needle in the haystack of the Pacific Ocean.

These questions about wanting to make people care have stayed with me as I’ve moved from journalism to academia. My research has been underpinned by exploring notions of ‘who is legitimised as a storyteller?’ in today’s digital environment, and ‘what is journalism?’ in a such a fragmented media system. I was drawn back to the Pacific region to carry out my thesis research, still looking for answers to these questions. I was interested in exploring an advocacy organisation that produced media reports on Cyclone Pam from Vanuatu, in March 2015. It struck me as interesting that the news I was receiving about the cyclone, as it passed, wasn’t necessarily coming from journalists or even news websites – it was coming from a group of advocates posting on various digital outlets like blogs and social media. These types of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have to be the epitome of ‘wanting to make people care’ about an issue. So it seemed a natural progression for me to research this phenomenon. To get to your question, the thing I’ve realised along the way is that when advocacy and reporting collide, much like deconstructing the ethics of Humanitarians of Tinder, the pros and cons are complicated. There’s a fine line between trying to help and providing a legitimate news service.

“The news I was receiving about the cyclone wasn’t coming from journalists or even news websites – it was coming from a group of advocates”

I guess this also goes back to my experience of voluntourism; it doesn’t really work to just say that type of travel is good or bad – those binaries are too simple in most cases. Traditionally, journalism has always existed to document a situation and then the people, of their own accord, should take action if they feel so inclined. Whereas most NGOs are mandated from the start to try and bring about some form of action or change on a particular issue. So there is immediately an ethical issue if you’re consuming reports from NGOs – whether on social media, blogs or picked up by mainstream outlets – as news, because it has an inherent bias. However, this is also a very rose-tinted way of thinking about the media at the moment. We all know that commercialism and clicks win most of the time in terms of driving mainstream news content. Companies are mandated with providing a return to their shareholders – so in some ways that original idea of what journalism should be is very diluted in today’s commercial environment anyway.

There is a guy called Matthew Powers, who is probably the most notable researcher in the area of NGO journalism. He suggests that, regardless of how you frame it, NGOs are becoming the new boots on the ground for reporting from faraway places. I think that this is actually quite an accurate summary of what is beginning to happen with some organisations, especially the likes of UNICEF NZ – as I discuss in my chapter for Reimagining Journalism. In my opinion, we need to accept the relevance of such organisations to producing news, and start accounting for the role they could play in providing content – especially from regions that feel remote, like the Pacific. And I think it’s a matter of how we do this in a way that visibly acknowledges reporting is by an NGO, while still affirming its relevance. I mean, why are these reports going to be any less biased than the commercial imperatives of many media companies that don’t even send foreign correspondents on assignment anymore because they are too risk-averse and the return on profit isn’t high enough? That said, acknowledging the growing influence of NGOs also puts the ball back in the court of journalism outlets to differentiate themselves from advocacy by providing neutral, factual and quality reporting that addresses all sides of an argument – unlike advocacy, which tends to focus on actioning a cause or fulfilling a preset agenda.

I say all this without even getting to some of the findings from my thesis though, which showed that many advocates don’t even see their work as journalism – this ‘news’ aspect is an unintentional side effect of their advocacy being distributed into a very messy digital environment where I, for one, saw it and read it as ‘news’. So that’s a whole other layer, probably for another discussion. I go back to the dating and voluntourism analogies: It’s complicated.

S: I hear you on all of this. I’ve bounced between roles in my time as a writer, and I guess have been spending a bit of time wondering what category I fit into at this point. Am I a journalist? Am I a researcher? Am I an editor trying to do too many things at once?! If I do a PhD, would that make me an academic? Can I be all of these things simultaneously, or should I focus on fitting into one category? Am I employable if I don’t?

One of my current contracts is as a researcher on an academic project mapping the INGO sector in the UK. At this stage of the project that basically means collating data on what the NGOs we’re looking at do and who they work with, in order to get a better idea of any gaps in the sector. Anyway, the NGO I have been looking at this week’s entire MO is sending volunteers to developing communities, and placing them with civil society organisations, government agencies, health centres and the like to help train local staff, improve infrastructure – using whatever skills they can bring to the party. Volunteers range from students to parliamentarians, and everything in-between, and include volunteers from the communities and countries the NGO operates in. They do amazing work, and – at least from their comms materials! – it seems to be making a huge difference to the communities they work in, as well as benefitting volunteers on both a personal and professional level.

I’m sure the reality is, once again, more complex, but generally speaking they’re volunteering in a considered, participatory way, rather than latching onto people’s disadvantage for the feel-goods and Instagram pics, which is the side of volunteer schemes that I have a problem with. That said, motives are subjective things, and even if it was possible to precisely judge them – whose place is it to do so? How much time should we spend dragging well-intentioned folk over the coals, when at least they’re using their position to do something to address inequity? However, by the same token – as the example of Louise Linton shows – not critiquing the way people engage in charity and advocacy work can have incredibly demeaning and destructive consequences.

As you say, these sorts of tensions also exist in the media, particularly right now as the industry is undergoing a major identity crisis c/o the internet and other technologies. You noted the expectation of, and need for neutrality in reportage, but there’s also often overt pressure to take a position as a journalist – some editors directly pressure writers to seek to shock or be polarising, to win a reaction from their audiences. On those terms, it could be argued that taking a stance as a journalist can equate to advocacy (or lobbying, depending on the topic). In some cases the difference will be clear, but not all – and if a journalist is actively fulfilling their mandate of speaking truth to power, the distinction may blur further. It’s hard to remain neutral if you’re questioning power dynamics and their effects. And, as you’ve noted: what’s the difference between branded placement of case studies and calls-to-action by NGOs and activist groups, and commercial advertorial for other products or services?

“It’s hard to remain neutral if you’re questioning power dynamics and their effects”

I actually love the fact that none of this is clear right now. It emphasises to me how hung up people still are on categories – despite the fact, I think, it’s going to get harder and harder to put people, and forms of work, into tidy boxes. In application, as a freelancer, this can be disorienting and stressful, but it’s also exciting and really interesting. I just think the news has bowed to corporate interests for long enough, which to me only reinforces longstanding power dynamics that ultimately do a lot of damage. I’m excited to see what is possible if more independent media outlets are able to find a way of establishing themselves, and to stay independent, in this new climate.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.

Hannah Spyksma is a journalist and academic from Northland, New Zealand. Read more by Hannah. She can also be found at hannahspyksma.com, and followed on Twitter.