NGOs operate on the principle of being independent “Third Sector” organizations, working outside the realm of the government “Public Sector” and the for-profit “Private Sector.” The independence of NGOs of all causes has long been considered a fundamental operating principle. For humanitarian organizations, being perceived as an extension of state power could have fatal consequences. For another group of NGOs, a lack of independence may not be life-threatening, yet for political non-profit organizations in the U.S., a perception of partisanship could result in the revocation of its “social welfare” tax-exempt status.
An independent news media, where people have the freedom to access objective information, has long been seen as foundational to democracy. The recent tragedies in Libya and Egypt highlight the potentially lethal consequences of a perceived state manipulated media flow, as these countries’ governments have inculcated the widespread belief that the US government approves of the inflammatory “Innocence of Muslims” video, believed to be the source of turmoil in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia and Libya.
While there is a general consensus on the necessity of independence for both NGOs and the Media, with much scholarship dedicated to both topics, there is little research conducted on the relationship between the two; examining the role of an independent news media in garnering citizen trust for NGOs.
A recent study entitled “Media Independence and Trust in NGOs” was published in the Feb 2012 Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly assesses the role an independent media plays in a populace’s trust in, and perception of NGOs. Through their study, the authors concluded that independent media is positively associated with trust in NGOs: media can provide information about NGO activities that enables citizens to develop opinions about individual NGOs and NGOs as a category of social actors.
In post-communist Eurasian countries, the common communist legacies of institutional distrust would lead many to expect public trust in recently emerged NGOs to be uniformly low. The authors found that trust is enhanced when independent media provides balanced and impartial information, even when the information they provide is sometimes critical of NGOs. An independent media can report on NGOs’ activities and serve as a watchdog by monitoring NGOs and making them accountable by naming and shaming them. This enables development of citizens’ trust in these organizations.
Skepticism over the independence of the media is limited not only to developing countries, but can be found in some of the most prosperous and well-known. For instance, the media mogul and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s control of the Italian media. Or more famously, Rupert Murdoch’s ever growing media empire in Europe and the United States is criticized as stifling speech and not [giving] fair coverage of a variety of social actors. Citizen trust in civil society is crucial to the continued existence of NGOs, and media can play a significant role in earning it.
While in the United States that trust is often taken for granted, in many countries it is a problem faced by organizations of all causes. Identifying this relationship and seeing the impact of a free media on the impact NGOs can allow for future insight on building prosperous civil societies.