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Crisis and Media Event – Sree Sreenivasan Transcript and Video

March 12, 2011

While every humanitarian crisis inflicts enormous pain and suffering, the media doesn’t give them similar attention and they aren’t covering them still. Why not?

CauseShift and Oxfam International gathered leaders from the humanitarian aid sector together with innovators inside and outside the sector for a special two-hour event in NYC.

To begin the evening, we assembled four different people to share their perspectives. Rejecting the traditional panel approach, we convened what we term a “Conversation Gauntlet”, which is a consecutive series of one-on-one interviews with the same moderator. Here is the third of four conversations:


BRIAN REICH, SVP and Global Editor at Edelman Digital:
All right. Sree, you are up. I want to shift the conversation now to focus more on the media role. Sree is dean of student affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. There are two issues I want to bring up. One is that the role of media is changing across the board. People feel as if mainstream, traditional, professional media is not doing a sufficient job in response to humanitarian crises. Primarily, I would argue, because they focus mostly on the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ storytelling. Part tragedy, part humanity piece, blah, blah, blah.

If media is going to do a more comprehensive job in educating and engaging the global public around a humanitarian crisis, how are we going to have to teach, train, or structure media organizations and journalists differently? What is it that you would change in what you’re teaching your current cohort, so that they don’t go out there and just tell that basic story which we don’t really need the media to tell, as much as we once did?

SREE SREENIVASAN, Dean of Student Affairs at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism:
First of all, thank you for having me. Now I know who to blame for Shaq’s tweets and we’ve found that person is Shaq. He does them on his own. It’s great to be here and to meet all of you. This topic is something that I think a lot about — how do we get the media and journalists to be thinking differently about the world around us.

I want to say, first of all, that we do have journalists who aren’t doing it the old-fashioned way. Just last night, if you were watching the Oscars, one of my very recent students was nominated for a documentary about the South Pacific and the environmental crisis happening there. It’s called Sun Come Up, by Jennifer Redfern, Class of 2007. That’s an example — someone who just got on a plane and went off to the South Pacific, did a documentary, and got nominated for an Oscar. I wish it happened more often, but it doesn’t.

There is a tremendous interest in everything from social justice to humanitarian crises, among young journalists, as there are among older journalists. The current crisis that journalism itself is going through is part of the story. As you know, the media landscape is changing very fast. Lots of news organizations are having trouble dispatching people, even for those what you might call a routine story, is difficult.

A couple of things that can be done. One is in the way that we’re teaching journalists. We’re trying to teach them how to understand issues both at a macro and micro level and to get them to be thinking about where some of these issues are – what the origin of some of these problems are – and to try to cover those stories in a longer-term basis.

Also at the journalism school of Columbia, we’ve had basically a PhD program and a master of science, kind of more traditional program for dozens and dozens of years. But in the last few years, we have looked at journalism and said ‘there are two big things that are going to happen in the future’. One is specialization of journalism and journalists. We have new program that takes students through a very deep dive in politics, art, science, or business and half their classes are in those programs. A journalist who understands the backgrounds of some of these issues is going to do much better than someone who doesn’t. The other aspect of this is the digital future of journalism. I mean, you’re already seeing that now, and we’re teaching a lot more of digitized journalism and how to use it in the best possible ways, or in the smartest possible ways. I think those are two ways of kind of looking at it. We need journalists to do more with this, and it’s certainly not yet done, what needs to happen.

One other thought is that apart from going to a place and being on the ground, covering the breaking news as it happens, there is another role for journalists that I’ve been thinking a lot about. And we saw it in action just these last few days and you can see it in action right now. Everyone here should be following @acarvin, who is Andy Carvin at NPR. If you haven’t followed him or you have not heard of him, it says two things. His recent work has been covered in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and several other places, including NPR. If you haven’t heard of him, that tells you something about where current media is, and how much noise there is about everything, that a hero to emerge as a journalist, and all of you who care about this, have not heard about him. That’s too bad and that’s something that journalism needs to work on.

But more importantly, Andy Carvin is an example of what journalists can do now. The traditional, more sexy position, if you will, was to go out there and cover the story. But what Andy’s done, he’s carved out this niche looking at when there’s a crisis, he becomes a place of accurate, timely, useful information. A kind of curator of all this noise that’s out there and picking out the gems. He’s doing that in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. And there are other folks who are doing this, as well. A friend of mine has worked in Egypt — the ability to stay far away and bring some order to the chaos that social and other media is important, and I think we’re going to see more of that.

It seems to me that journalists have always been assigned the role of storyteller, meaning that they have to go out and report the story and then tell it. That’s great. Now, we all have tools so that we can all be storytellers, and there are all of these other roles, which frankly, media has not demonstrated all of its skills at. Certainly the education role – the storytelling, but then the continued, almost pedagogical approach, to ensure that someone understands and gains knowledge. The curator role – the filtering and the sorting role.

What other aspects that maybe media should be doing, that they’re not doing well or maybe aren’t good at, do you think is missing from these complex stories? You wrote recently about Egypt and some of the storytelling there, and how it’s not a technology story and it’s not a social media story. What is that we’re just misapplying the responsibility to media for right now?

Since you’ve mentioned that piece, I wrote five things I learned from watching Egypt and Libya and all of these places. If you send me an email, I’ll be happy to send you a copy of it. My email is The number one thing I said – this is not a social media revolution. This is a story of people going out and fighting and dying on the streets. But at the same time, the number two thing I learned is that Malcolm Gladwell was wrong.

You may remember this famous October piece he wrote about how social media can’t affect social change, and really it’s sort of like ‘social media, what is it good for — absolutely nothing,’ is what he said. I love Malcolm Gladwell, but I said he was wrong. My favorite tweet in this entire process was a Tweet from Scott Klein of ProPublica, who said the government of Egypt shut down the Internet, so Malcolm Gladwell wouldn’t be wrong. And that tells you something about Malcolm Gladwell’s power. But even he couldn’t get this.

So back to your point that journalists need to do a better job of working with the players who understand and have deep knowledge, and a lot of the folks in this room, who are interested in, who work at NGOs and places like that. Let me give an example of an organization that did this. The Council on Foreign Relations, which is one of the most famous, most influential, some of you might say is very opposite of an NGO, in a traditional sense. This is like the most powerful of organizations. They got tired of waiting for a journalist to come around, do a single sound bite, waste hours of their time. And then, you know what they did, is they hired a journalist named Michael Moran, who is fabulous, and was foreign editor of MSNBC — and brought Michael in, to turn into a news organization. They went from getting one quote in the paper every three days into getting hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people reading their stuff, because they turned themselves into a 24-hour — I’m exaggerating — news operation. And that’s the kind of situation you’re seeing.

I encourage more organizations to look at that. I have a student who did the science, the detailed science program that I mentioned, and then went to work for the NRDC’s website and magazine. He said he’s doing better science journalism on a daily basis, with some meaning, than he would if he went to work at a place where he wrote one science story every three weeks, or something.

You have 35 – 75 people run through your program in the course of a year. Maybe– SREE: No, no, a hundred.

Maybe a hundred, but you know, a few thousand journalists are trained each year. Let’s say they’re trained really well. It’s not enough, right. If every media, if every corporation should act as a media company, to get its story out, or focus on this. If every NGO — Stephen Cassidy, I think, runs this type of operation at UNICEF, and we’ll talk to him in a minute — it’s still not enough, so what is the complement or the supplement in the media that NGOs or other organizations need to take on? What is it, that, where the media leaves off, another organization needs to pick up, and how would that be structured differently? Because they can’t all just be another New York Times, they can’t just be a series of bureau operations, they can’t be another website that does great reporting. There has to be some complement. So what is the complement that makes the media that is working, that much more influential, and or supplements the media that is good at raising awareness, but not so good at going deep?

You all know this idea of people wanted to take action when they see a news story, right? I’d like to say that a Walter Cronkite, some of you might remember him, many of you won’t, sadly, used to say at the end of each show, “And that’s the way it is”. I love Uncle Walter, but he was lying. You know, he was saying “And that’s the way it is,” but what he didn’t tell you was ‘look, this is what we got — three people called in sick, the satellite truck was broken, and four people were, couldn’t make it in today,’ whatever, right. Now, when Katie Couric ends her talk, that’s the beginning of the conversation.

I’m frustrated how often a nonprofit that is working on a particular story, isn’t paying attention to what’s happening. Once Katie Couric says something or covers something that would be the perfect opportunity for an NGO to step up and have materials that work right around that story, and deepen it, extend it, and all that stuff. And they don’t do it. That’s because they’re not trained — let’s not forget, it’s easy to blame the media for everything, but a lot of the PR folks, present company excluded, but PR folks who work at a lot of these NGOs, were former journalists, and they’re all still thinking in a traditional way. And not enough are trying to do new and interesting ways of doing this stuff.

I’m happy to blame everyone, for what it’s worth. One last question, very quickly. Normally, I would ask what’s the one thing we should stop, but I think actually in the context of media and journalism, there’s so much not being done in a truly innovative way in the context of humanitarian crises. I want to ask the other question, which is, you know, if there was a horrific earthquake tomorrow, or say, I don’t know, a week ago, let’s say hypothetically, that no one really heard about for whatever reason. What is the one thing that, operationally, you think, would potentially make such a huge difference? What is the sort of Andy Carvinesque activity?

And you mean what NGOs should do? From the NGO side? BRIAN: Or anyone. What’s missing from the response in the context of media?

Whenever this happens, and by the way, I was shocked to see that there was another earthquake in Chile, almost to the day since last year’s earthquake. One of the best things that came out of that earthquake was an instant Google Doc, thrown up by a bunch of folks, which had contact information of people on the ground in Chile, when this happened. Not just for journalism, but for finding people, and things like that. So if I were any NGO that operates, I mean, I would have a way that, as soon something happens, you’re able to throw up something that has details. I got a note today that Mercy Core is off to Libya, to check on what’s happening there.

With New Zealand, for example, there is so much that could have been done, and there are NGOs that work there. So today I spoke to somebody who works at an NGO that does work in New Zealand, but there’s nothing on their website about it, because New Zealand wasn’t a great place for fundraising from the American side, so they didn’t care about it, even though they were working in it. So I think they need to do more of that.

All right, well, thank you.

I just want two quick things. I would say one is also to nonprofit folks, you’ve heard this since you went to PR school — do not send attachments, even last week I got a note saying “Here’s our latest press release about whatever it is,” and it says “Please see the attachment.” People are not, I mean the old worry was about viruses, but now the worry is you’re on a Blackberry — you’re not going to see it. PR people still do that, which is really upsetting … and it’s an opportunity that’s lost.

The second thing I’d just say is that folks like Scottand Brian, and others, who are thinking about this in a new way — how to communicate and how to still use the media — you’re doing it the right way. That it isn’t saying that the mainstream media is dead, all of that distilled stuff that continues.

And finally a plug for Ayesha Khanna’s husband’s book. If you don’t know, I mean, she had no reason to tell you, but her husband, Parag Khanna, is one of the most interesting people, in trying to understand the state of the world. And his new book is called How to Run the World, and you must check it out. It’s just out, and he’s all over TV every morning. I don’t think you see him much, because on his book tour, around the world. But he is, along with Malcolm, Fareed Zakaria, Tom Freedman, one of those explainers of the world. But he’s 20 years younger.

But he’s right.

And he’s right. And he has Khanna, to actually, probably, give him the real guidance on this. But you must check it out. His website is, and he has on his website and in his book a Diplomacy in the 21st Century graphic. It’s free on the website, so you don’t even have to buy the book, but I’m sure their child would be happy if you bought the book. But you must check it out, because I understand that these changes were talking about are not PR, not journalism, but also in diplomacy and everything around us.

Excellent. All right, thank you.


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