A voice for those who don't have one
Ethan Donnell, twenty five year old Leader of Digital Content for UNICEF New Zealand.
“Work has always been a big part of how I define myself. I like UNICEF because it's about being part of something bigger than just me"
Ethan started at UNICEF at a time when it felt like the world was stable.
It was eighteen months ago now; the attention economy was at large for the first time, cameras and wifi spots were prevalent, and traditional media companies were slowly roaring out of business. The difference was that the media arena just wasn't as effectively abused then as what it is today. Now we're in the era of the snackable.
Snackable is a word we use to describe the kind of content we're looking for online today, whether consciously or not. Now when we click, we are looking to be outraged. Short, sharp, shocking. It's the magic formula for media that is shareable in 2016, and journalists everywhere know it. Click bait works. Disbelief works.
Horror is what sells.
You can see it in this American election. In Brexit. In the truck recently driven through a crowd in France. Fear drives traffic. Traffic drives revenue, and so a story of fear is always spread. It's a newsroom priority - and when this behaviour of sharing the worst-case scenario is multiplied out across media outlets locally and globally, the prophecy soon fulfils itself. Xenophobia burgeons, progress is forgotten, and eventually, an ever-present feeling has started to linger that the world may be about to lose its marbles. But the traffic still comes. And so the hunts for the worst-case extremes continue.
When I sit with Ethan, we talk about snackable media together. He cringes a little at the world – it isn't something he started journalism to do.
"I had this naïve idea, which I think a lot of journalists have, that I was going to hold the powerful to account and do social good through my work."
For Ethan, journalism has always been about the voices of real people. It's about standing up for the people who might not have the chance to stand up for themselves.
He credits the way he was raised, by a strong, single mother — as well as time spent working for more 'consumable' news sites — for his move to international development journalism. Now he gets to work for kids, report on stories that celebrate progress, and help to raise the profile of child rights internationally.
"I grew up in a single-parent household and respect my mum so much for the sacrifices she made. She taught me the value of education and the importance of having a strong community. I think these values are at the core of what UNICEF does to help children. The connection has always felt really personal.”
Although the modern media industry has bent to accommodate online behaviour (and maybe at the price of quality journalism), it has also been decentralised with the global rise of digital technology. The good news is that these days, anyone with a wifi connection and a camera can be a journalist. It's opened up a whole lot of opportunities for people everywhere to grow an audience.
The problem is – there's a lot of noise online. The challenge today for journalists like Ethan is telling stories in a way that will let them get to you.
When considering the balance between appealing to morbid curiosity and getting the clicks, with reporting on the reality with a less extreme angle and not, it's important to understand how to go about it.
By using creative formats of content, quite often Ethan is able to achieve cut-through without compromising on the integrity of his news. That is, even in the attention economy – quality journalism can still trump snackable media.
It's important for UNICEF that Ethan can achieve this. There's a lot of injustice and progress to report back on in UNICEF's work. He'll often use video as his vehicle to tell a story, along with strong first person pieces with ties to New Zealand, mixed media content, and short, mobile-friendly headlines to pull a piece together. It means he can report on the majority; on what most children in poverty are facing everyday, without needing to resort to reporting on the worst-case scenario every time.
Ethan believes this is where the worst stories really do happen; in the majority. They just usually won't happen at a punctuated point in time, but rather conditions of the majority gradually worsen over time to eventually become horrific. Out of Syria have come millions to Lebanon. Now having lived in refugee camps for more than five years; out of school, and angry, thousands of boys are vulnerable to being recruited for the conflict. Meanwhile girls are vulnerable to early marriage, sexual exploitation, trafficking, and abuse. For thousands, millions, there's no such thing as going back to school.
All may go hungry. All are afraid. All don't get to go home.
“Journalists are often forced to find extreme examples to illustrate larger problems. What we try to do is find that regular person who’s struggling every day, rather than focus on that one dire case.
A larger problem is often made up by lots of smaller struggles that paint a picture of what’s gone wrong. But when those stories aren’t sensational enough to get clicks, how do you find a news outlet willing to publish them?”
But millions and thousands are large numbers. It's overwhelming for the senses to even see - too much to really understand. That's a hard story to report on, and not because it isn't dire. Just that when it's broken down into fragments these stories still aren't bad enough to be newsworthy. It's only when aggregated that the true horror is spelt out: millions of kids won't get to go home and now have to face a life of resettlement and xenophobia and distrust all around the world. Millions of kids are losing their culture. Thousands have to get into a rubber lifeboat this year and hope they make it across the Mediterranean Sea.
It's as dire as it gets. But overwhelming aggregated statistics don't drive clicks. Individual stories do. They are what will go viral. They are what get published. An example is with Aylan. When the three year old's body washed to shore last year, the media landscape exploded. The photo of the boy lying face down on the sand; it shocked the world. And although the horror goes on, whether we see it or not, everyday, it doesn't always spread like Aylan's story did. Our capacity to care as an audience is a finite thing.
The stories of the majority still need to be told, even if they won't go viral. It's important that we do hold humanity to account, in one way or another, for what is allowed to happen to people. These are stories of the majority in all countries - everywhere – the children who go without food, without education, without water or peace or shelter. The stories of everyday abuse, of mistreatment, of conflict and corruption. They are the stories that have to be shared for progress to be made.
The good news too. UNICEF globally is on a mission to improve the world for every child, and it's important for Ethan to be able to share what they're seeing. Whether that's giving out water, medicine, education, emergency supplies, food, shelter and safety to thousands of children on any single day, or installing the water pumps in the Kiribati. Maybe giving food for children in Ethiopia. Supporting the displaced after Ecuador's earthquake. The list of success goes on, and so it is important to know how to achieve cut-through.
Ethan knows the secret to this is in how good he gets at journalism. That's the rewarding part of the job; learning how to tell better stories. Reporting on narratives that are important. Contributing to the global conversation. Beating the noise of the snackable.
For Ethan, producing quality means he has the freedom to document the everyday. He can do the journalism he'd always hoped to do. Most importantly, he can provide a balanced tone between what is progress and what is horrific, what is inequitable, and what is worth celebrating, to an audience who enjoys and looks forward to his content. All without caving to the attention economy.
His message for others who want to be a part of what UNICEF does is clear. Be empowered to pick up a camera and do something about what you feel is wrong. Tell a story, detail what really does outrage you. Just remember to give your voice to someone who can't have one. That's what's most important. And as we deep dive further into the click-driven media landscape – that's the kind of work that is going to push the world forward through the real chaos every time.
So go tell a good story.
"People should feel empowered to pick up a camera or speak to somebody who they know and ask about their story"
1. Learn your skill - Ethan's ability to bring change is not only because he wants to help, but also because he has learned and refined an applicable skill. Starting with writing and expanding into video, photography and editing, Ethan's able to use his more employable skill set to make a real difference.
2. Work within the system - Although as a journalist he may not always agree or like the nature of snackable content and consumable media, Ethan also knows that he has to work within the existing framework to make a significant difference too.
3. Produce Quality - By producing quality content, Ethan's able to tell the stories of the most disadvantaged without resorting to shock tactics or the worst-case scenario to make a difference.
4. Help others be heard - Whatever voice or means you do have, use it to your advantage to help others be heard. Change the world by empowering others to tell their stories and use your shared momentum to create change, together.