Opinion: Third Voice - Charity and the media make uncertain bedfellows

Penelope Gibbs is director of the Voluntary Action Media Unit and a former producer at the BBC

When it comes to the media, does the voluntary sector cut off its nose to spite its face?

Some years ago, I was producing Woman's Hour and decided to make a programme on children in care. No charity had contacted me - I was simply interested in focusing on the care system and its results.

I wanted to feature teenagers who had spent time being 'looked after', because personal testimony is always powerful. I contacted a charity to ask if it could put me in touch with 17 to 19 year-olds who would be willing to talk about their life in care.

The charity said setting up these interviews would take two weeks. It added that a worker from the charity would have to sit in on the interview and that it would expect payment. So I gave up with the charity, which thereby lost the opportunity to give young adults a chance to say what being in care was really like and to associate itself with a high-profile programme.

I'm now a part of the voluntary sector, researching its relationship with the media. The hostility to the media shown by that charity is not uncommon, and I do understand it - the media can be rude and unreliable. But it is certainly not out to get charities, and in most cases doesn't deserve the level of mistrust it inspires.

My colleagues and I have interviewed 30 media professionals from newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and online, and not one of them has shown a prejudice against charities. However, neither do any of them feel obliged to help charities promote their own individual agendas. The truth is that it's the story that counts - if it fits, they'll use it.

But nearly every media interviewee complained that charities were neither proactive nor understanding of media needs. Orion Ray-Jones, editor of easyJet magazine, said those who pitched ideas to him "don't seem to have read our magazines or our websites, which would tell them what kind of stories we write and what angles we look for. It's as if they have picked the name of the magazine out of a hat."

If there's one overall conclusion to our research, it's not that the media is set against the sector, but that there is often a mismatch between what the media wants and what it is offered.

- Do you agree? Whether you are involved with a charity or the media, I'm interested in your views and experiences - email me at p.gibbs@vamu.org.uk.

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