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An Interview with our 2011 Voices of Courage Honoree Thomson Reuters Foundation

Thomson Reuters Foundation hosts and produces AlertNet, the world’s humanitarian news network. AlertNet provides news and information on natural disasters, conflicts, refugees, hunger, diseases and climate change. At a time when crises are occurring in almost every corner of the world, the CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation, Monique Villa, explains why AlertNet is a critical resource.

How and why was AlertNet founded?

AlertNet was set up in 1997, in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwanda genocide and criticism of the slow media response and poorly coordinated activities of relief agencies. The site puts our strengths of speed, accuracy and impartiality at the disposal of the humanitarian community by offering a “one-stop shop” for crisis information. AlertNet reflects a fundamental belief that cuts across all of Thomson Reuters, that the right information in the right hands leads to positive outcomes in the world. 

Who provides the content for the site?

Our multimedia content comes from specialist AlertNet reporters around the world and our network of 196 Reuters News bureaus. In addition, a community of about 500 international relief organizations and 60 specialist news content partners contribute to the site. 

Who uses AlertNet and how do they use it?

AlertNet is for anybody concerned with human suffering: relief workers, donors, policymakers, researchers, students, journalists and the general public. They use it to stay up-to-date on crises worldwide—including the so-called “neglected” emergencies that don’t get much mainstream media coverage. They also use it to access tools and resources to help them do their work, whether planning a relief response, researching background on a crisis or making donor decisions. During the Japan disaster AlertNet tweets have been massively retweeted by our followers –now numbering more than 10,000.

How did you get involved?

When I took over the Foundation in 2008, shortly after the Reuters acquisition by Thomson, I was charged with turning the Reuters Foundation into a much broader Thomson Reuters Foundation that would reflect the assets of the new company. I have been a journalist for 20 years, then managing director of Reuters Media, and as AlertNet was one of our major programs, I was keen to make it a truly global operation. I have increased the number of the foundation's journalists worldwide—from 3 to 16—and introduced a wider range of voices from crisis-hit countries. I was also very keen to create a far richer visual experience on the site and give a voice to as many people caught up in crisis around the world as possible.

With the quickly-changing situation in the Middle East, how important is it to have real time coverage of emerging crises?

Fast, accurate information has never been more important, as recent events in the Middle East clearly show. Who would have expected events in Tunisia and Egypt to unfold the way they did? Those upheavals ended happily, but in Libya things quickly turned from giddy optimism in the East to a humanitarian crisis. It’s not easy to mount a major international relief effort, and real-time information is absolutely key.

In the shifting news/media landscape, what do you see as AlertNet's role?

AlertNet started life as a way to help aid agencies respond to crises quickly, effectively and in a more coordinated way.  It also sought to shine a light on humanitarian issues that rarely make the front page—the slow-burning, complex emergencies that affect so many people yet get so little coverage. Both of those goals remain central to our purpose. But we see a growing role for AlertNet as a platform for the people caught up in crises to speak for themselves. That’s why we created an Emergency Information Service for disaster-affected populations, allowing them to receive critical information but also to complete the feedback loop and send information back to aid workers.

Through multimedia projects, we have also helped people on the ground tell their own stories. We see a much greater role for social media in bringing humanitarian themes to life. Have a look at our multimedia documentaries on Haiti http://www.trust.org/alertnet/multimedia/in-focus/haiti/ and on women's rights.  http://www.trust.org/trustlaw/womens-rights/womens-voices/

Would you say there is a growing interest in humanitarian issues and news?

People talk a lot about “compassion fatigue,” and there is no doubt that humanitarian stories have to compete extra hard with other news items to get significant play. Major disasters such as the Japanese tsunami or Haiti earthquake get wall-to-wall coverage, but humanitarian issues in Somalia, Colombia or Ivory Coast receive far less interest. Having said that, I feel there is a growing appetite for from-the-ground stories of human resilience in the face of crisis. Multimedia has the potential to bring these human stories to life in new and exciting ways that both capture the imagination and challenge stereotypes and clichés. News is news—it’s about good storytelling. Humanitarian news is no exception.