The Future of IRIN

Dr Martin Scott
University of East Anglia
Dr Katherine Wright
University of Roehampton
Dr Mel Bunce
City University

The Research Idea

This research seeks to investigate the influence of foundation funding on humanitarian journalism. In particular, it will explore how the transition from UN funding to foundation funding will affect the production practices and output of the influential humanitarian news agency – IRIN – to which we have been granted access.

Unfortunately, there is little existing research either on the production of humanitarian news or foundation-funded journalism. This may be because of a reluctance to critically investigate increasingly rare examples of ‘progressive’ journalism, or the difficulties in gaining access. This is also likely to be a consequence of the significant methodological and conceptual challenges involved in investigating the indirect, long-term and subtle potential effects of foundation funding on such dispersed organisations.

We aim to tackle these challenges by combining methodological and conceptual insights from journalism studies and development studies. Our conceptual framework, for example, centres on Sayer’s analytical model of the moral economy. This model was chosen because it offers an original and sophisticated means of attending to the sociology of news production (as is the concern of journalism studies), whilst at the same time drawing attention to the possible ways that such production practices may be implicated within the reproduction of unequal relations of global power (to which foundations are often aligned), that is a key concern of development studies. In short, this innovative combination development studies and journalism studies will enable us to study an issue of increasing importance that has so far been under-theorised and under-researched.


Consideration of the influence of foundation funding on international news is, at the moment, limited to theoretical critique or brief critical discussions of anecdotal examples. As Browne (2010:890) puts it, ‘there has not, as yet, been any comprehensive content analysis of the work produced by foundation-funded journalists and it would be unfair to jump to critical conclusions via anecdote’. Feldman’s (2007:445) conclusion that, ‘the funded left has moved towards the mainstream as it has increased its dependence on foundations’, for example, is no more than an assertion drawn from data showing a general increase in foundation funding for media organisations over time. Existing studies are also focussed almost exclusively on the influence of US foundations on US media.

In addition, Browne (2010), Feldman (2007) and others frequently refer to the idea of a ‘benevolent fog’, or ‘the ethical confusion that may be engendered by foundations’ (Browne 2010:891) to explain how they understand the influence of foundation funding to operate. Unfortunately, this concept of a ‘benevolent fog’ is almost entirely unexplored. No account is given of how it is produced or how it operates, for example, or how it manifests itself in different ways under different circumstances. In summary, existing research into foundation funded journalism is empirically thin, methodologically frail and conceptually weak.

Browne, H. (2010) ‘Foundation-Funded journalism: Reasons to be wary of charitable support’, Journalism Studies, 11:6, 889-903.

Feldman, B. (2007) ‘Report from the Field: left media and left think tanks – foundation-managed protest?’, Critical Sociology, 33:3, 427-446.

The Focus

This project will be the first of its kind to analyse the changing content and production of news within a humanitarian news agency – over an extended period of time. Our three main research questions are: (1) what is changing at IRIN, (2) how is this changing (3) and why is it changing?
Those research questions then break down into three, more specific sub-research questions. The first set of sub research questions relate to how and why changes occur in the structuring of IRIN’s external relationships. These include relationships between IRIN and different funders; between IRIN and its audiences and changes in its relationships with competitors and/or syndicating partners. The next set of sub research questions relate to internal relationships. This involves how and why managerial strategy shapes daily journalistic practice and vice versa. Issues here include office relocation, multiple sites, physical layout, electronic communications and different delivery platforms. The final set of sub research questions focus on changes to IRIN’s actual news output. For example, whether the geographic and topical spread of items shifts; how IRIN deals with on-screen interactivity, multimedia material; and how IRIN approaches the definition and interpretation of particular kinds of problems and issues.
This precise focus on multiple aspects of news content and production at IRIN not only distinguishes our research from the existing literature, it also ensures that we are attentive to the way in which social change emerges from the interplay of many different kinds of structures and systems.

Theoretical Novelty

The conceptual innovation of this research stems from our use of Sayer’s (2007) analytical model of the moral economy in order to develop a more sophisticated means of attending to the complicated interplay of different kinds of structure and agency involved in news production. Although Sayer is a social theorist and political economist, who does not write specifically on journalism, we believe that his theoretical framework lends itself well to an exploration of the issues relevant to foundation-funded journalism. This is because his model of the moral economy involves conceptualising parties entering into economic exchange-relationships as becoming embedded in normatively-laden social networks, structured by notions of inter-dependence, responsibility and obligation. Our contention is that the moral, political and professional values to which journalists are committed play a vital – and often critically under-estimated – role in shaping the relationships between news outlets, the foundations and trusts which support them, and media production practice.

This kind of theoretical approach involves a double-layered evaluative strategy which attends both to the kinds of decisions which journalists are able to make, given the contexts in which they operate; and to the kinds of structures which encourage and discourage particular kinds of practices. In this context, how IRIN journalists engage in the difficult task of negotiating their relationship with their new funders, at the same time as re/negotiating other, normatively-laden relationships to their audiences and sources, becomes the key concern of our research.

Sayer, A. (2007). Moral economy as critique. New Political Economy 12:2, 261-270.


The three investigators involved each have unique expertise to bring to bear on this research, stemming from their different disciplinary backgrounds. Dr Martin Scott (Development Studies) will take charge of conducting a content analysis of all IRIN output, sampled daily over a 12 month period, as well as a critical discourse analysis of a select sample of texts.
Drawing on recent experience of conducting newsroom ethnographies in West and East Africa, Dr Mel Bunce (Journalism Studies) will spend one day a week in IRIN’s London office to establish relationships/familiarity with production processes there. This will also involve informal, 20-30 minute interviews. Finally, in order to help move the study of production practice beyond a newsroom focus, Kate Wright (Journalism Studies) will conduct hour-long semi-structured interviews with managers and regular semi-freelance reporters (‘stringers’) at 3 month intervals about ongoing policy/strategy/funding issues. She will also conduct hour-long semi-structured interviews with all media producers whose decisions shape the production of 1-2 selected media items per month.
This innovative combination of qualitative and quantitative textual analysis, newsroom observations and double-layer chain interviewing, conducted over a 12 month period, will enable us to compare what IRIN produces, with managers’ and journalists’ descriptions of their practices and our experiences of their observed behaviours. In doing so it will help us to pinpoint which structures and pressures shape news production in IRIN and how this may be linked to the influence of foundation funding (or other factors). We have already obtained ethical clearance for this methodology.

Work Plan

The three work-streams discussed above will all commence on 1st January 2015. We have agreement from IRIN that this can continue for twelve months, in the first instance. After five months, we propose holding a two-day writing workshop at the University of East Anglia. Here, we will collectively summarise our initial findings and share thoughts about the three co-authored journal articles we intend to produce from this project. In preparation for this first workshop, all key interviews will need to have been transcribed and shared.
The second two-day writing workshop will be held after approximately twelve months, at Roehampton University. The aim of this workshop will be to facilitate the joint writing of our three articles. This writing workshops model is adapted from the ‘Celebrity and North-South Relations’ research network in Copenhagen, which has successfully used it to bring together scholars in media studies and development studies to write about how celebrities may be implicated in sustaining uneven relations of global power.
Finally, we believe that our research will benefit greatly, not just from collaborate writing, but also from a period of collaborative research in the field. Therefore, after six months we propose that Dr. Martin Scott and Dr. Mel Bunce both travel to IRINs office in Nairobi to conduct newsroom observations and interviews with the managers and stringers there. We anticipate that this period of concentrated collaborative working will enable us to share methodological practices and conceptual frameworks that will ultimately help to produce genuinely innovative, interdisciplinary scholarship.


In addition to academic outputs, we will be producing internal recommendations for IRIN journalists/managers as well as an externally-facing event, early in 2016, on the changing face of IRIN (pursued via POLIS, the Thomson Reuters Centre for the Study of Journalism, BOND and/or IBT). All three investigators already have strong links to a number of relevant NGOs, broadcasters and think tanks, with which our findings can be further disseminated.
Our longer-term objective is to continue study IRIN over an extended period of transition and combine this with a similar study of humanitarian news produced by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. This would enable us to survey the two major humanitarian news organisations in the world, at the same time, and to have two case studies of foundation funded humanitarian journalism.
We have already been granted permission to conduct similar newsroom observations and double-layered chain interviews with staff at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which is also based in London. In order to support this ambition, we would seek to make an application for further funding in Summer/Autumn 2015. The first of our planned writing workshops may help to facilitate this.
If successful, the intended outcomes of this extension to our research project would be a further academic article from each of the co-investigators as well as a jointly authored, dedicated book on humanitarian news agencies and foundation funding. An obvious outlet for this would be Professor Simon Cottle’s series on ‘Global Crises’, published by Peter Lang.

AHRC-Funded Project | July 2016 - March 2018

What is humanitarian news? A multi-sited study of how journalists define, debate and reproduce the boundaries of humanitarianism

There is a growing disconnect between the severity of disasters occurring around the world and our ability to find out about them. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of people affected by humanitarian crises almost doubled and factors such as climate change, terrorism, water scarcity and volatile food and energy prices are only exacerbating vulnerability to crises. Indeed, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair has predicted future increases in the number and scale of both rapid-onset and slow-onset emergencies.

At the same time, the international news media, facing significant economic pressures in the digital era, has cut back the number of foreign correspondents posted around the world. Those who remain are often desk-bound, and have little time and resources to cover even the largest of crises – let alone the day-to-day evolution of complicated humanitarian emergencies. Indeed, one recent study showed that humanitarian news coverage of sub Saharan Africa by international news agencies declined from 17% in the 1990s to only 1.5% in the early 2010s (Bunce 2016).

In this context, those (few) remaining news organisations dedicated to producing humanitarian news on a regular basis have an important role. News about humanitarian crises is vital for informing and supporting the community of relief workers, donors, and policy makers who respond to humanitarian events. It is also the key medium through which citizens learn of faraway crises. As a result, humanitarian news has the potential to influence international donor responses, inform cultural attitudes, and impact international tourism, trade and foreign direct investment.

Despite the importance of humanitarian news, it is poorly understood in the academic literature. Remarkably, no-one has ever studied a humanitarian news agency or the ways in which the notion of humanitarianism is understood and put into practice within a news organisation. We aim to address this important research gap. In particular we are seeking to understand:

  1. How do journalists and editors working in humanitarian and non-humanitarian news agencies define both news and humanitarianism and the relationship of one to the other?
  2. How do journalists’ understandings of humanitarian news shape their work and what socio-cultural and technological factors affect this?
  3. What are the distinguishing features of coverage produced by humanitarian news organisations compared with nonhumanitarian news organisations?

The research agenda, methodology and model of project management was refined through The Future of IRIN project supported by grants from Santander and the ISRF. This pilot generated insights into some specific working practices at IRIN, and suitable methodologies for studying them.

This grant was used to support an ongoing research project into ‘the Future of IRIN’. IRIN is a humanitarian news organisation which was, until the end of 2014, supported by the United Nations. From 2015 onwards it became an independent association, funded largely by grants from philanthropic foundations. The aim of this research project was to investigate if and how IRIN’s work changed as it moved from UN to foundation funding. This is the first research of its kind both to study the changing content and production of news within a humanitarian news agency and to investigate the implications of foundation funding within an internationally-oriented news organisation. This research involved a combination of textual analysis, in-depth interviews and newsroom ethnography performed by three researchers.

The central objective of the FG1 funding was to resource activities which would further embed interdisciplinary within this research that would be otherwise unachievable. This involved supporting two sets of activities. Firstly, as a result of this funding we were able to undertake two separate collaborative writing workshops at the middle and end of this project. The initial aim of these workshops was to help generate three co-authored academic journal articles. The three academics involved in this project come from different institutions and different disciplines and so it was envisaged that these workshops would support interdisciplinary collaboration by encouraging joint writing. However, at the first workshop we decided to prioritise the writing of a funding application for an AHRC Early Careers grant. During this workshop we co-authored an early draft of this application which sought funding to expand our research with IRIN – into a project that would encompass the entire sub-field of humanitarian journalism. This application was ultimately successful and so the primary outcome of these writing workshops has been a two-year AHRC Early Careers grant worth £220,000, involving the same three researchers.

In addition, the original objective of producing three co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles has been partially accomplished. At this stage we have submitted one journal article (entitled, ‘Donor Power and the News’) for peer review (to the International Journal of Press/Politics), whilst two others are in preparation. We co-authored sections of all three articles at the second writing workshop, where we benefitted greatly from having a concentrated period of time in which to work together. We anticipate completing the two remaining publications by the end of the year and will inform ISRF of the outcomes.

Further to the academic publications we are producing, we have also jointly presented our research at academic conferences in Cardiff, Oxford, Norwich, Sheffield (International Association for Media and Communication Research, Japan (International Communications Association) and the London School of Economics. The ISRF has been credited on each occasion.

In addition to travel and accommodation costs, as part of the support for these workshops we requested a small amount of funding to pay for the transcription of the interviews we conducted and the editorial meetings we observed. One of the challenges of collaborative, interdisciplinary working – especially involving multiple methods – is that it generates a wealth of data that needs to be shared amongst all of the researchers. In practice, we found that timely transcription of the data we were collecting was vital to ensuring that we could work together productively. As a result, we allocated some of the unspent travel money (see below) to further transcription. This was approved in advanced by the ISRF.

In summary, we found collaborative writing workshops to be an intense but highly productive means of embedding interdisciplinary work within our research. These workshops have also ensured that our interdisciplinary collaboration will continue for at least two more years as we carry out our AHRC-funded research.

The second major activity this ISRF grant supported was collaborative research in the field. The rationale was that a period of concentrated collaborative working would enable us to share methodological practices and conceptual frameworks that would ultimately help to produce genuinely innovative, interdisciplinary scholarship. In our initial application we proposed that Dr Martin Scott and Dr Mel Bunce would both travel to IRINs office in Nairobi to conduct newsroom observations and interviews with the managers and stringers there. Unfortunately, after the grant had begun, IRIN closed down its office in Nairobi and its staff relocated elsewhere. After gaining permission from ISRF, we changed the destination of our joint research trip to New York, where there are several IRIN stringers and former members of IRIN staff but also sources, collaborators and other producers of humanitarian news. During a four day trip we conducted 10 different interviews.

These interviews produced fascinating data about IRIN, particularly its historical relationship with the United Nation and the humanitarian sector more generally. More significantly, however, this trip let us develop our methods and collaborative strategies. During the trip, we discussed interview methodology at length – from how we would create a sample of journalists to interview, through to the questions we asked, issues of ethics and consent, and how we analysed the data. We planned for each interview together, and debriefed and analysed them together afterwards. This let us immediately triangulate our findings, as well as help to identify who we should try to interview next. This was a very rewarding experience, and we plan to replicate this process in our future trips on the AHRC grant. In New York, we also had the time to make future plans for the research project, and we made contacts that will be very helpful for this work.