WDR 2005 - Chapter 6: Humanitarian media coverage in the digital age

Media coverage of the 26 December tsunami dominated headlines worldwide well into January – much longer than any other disaster in modern history. After the tsunami came a metaphorical tidal wave of donations. Aid workers worried that the tsunami would divert donor money and media attention away from the world’s ‘hidden disasters’.

Many aid agencies regard media coverage of the world’s crises as selective and stereotyped. But they still crave publicity, hoping it will generate more funding and attention for disaster relief.

This chapter analyses the relationship between journalists and humanitarians and asks: how can aid organizations promote media coverage more proportionate to human suffering?

News judgement reflects established criteria. News must be new. Editors sort stories by death tolls. Disasters that are unusual yet explicable, and that cause considerable death or destruction in accessible places which the audience is believed to care about, get covered. Baffling stories get less attention.

The commercial imperative has sharpened journalists’ quest for ratings. Today, TV news is part news and part entertainment. So it’s understandable that sudden, dramatic disasters like volcanoes or tsunamis are intensely newsworthy, whereas long-drawn-out crises (difficult to describe, let alone film) are not.

News is often a numbers game. NGOs need to supply journalists with good data. Mortality surveys by one US NGO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) found that 3.8 million people had died since 1998 from war, disease and malnutrition. Even so, coverage of the crisis remained patchy: “one of the worst sins of omission in media history”, admits the BBC’s Fergal Keane.

The obstacles to reporting Congo’s war include huge distances, random and sporadic fighting, and complex politics. Correspondents made more headway when the conflict converged around specific locations (e.g. Bunia in 2003) or issues (e.g. child soldiers, rape). Ironically, the dramatic eruption of DRC’s Nyiragongo volcano in January 2002 prompted a huge influx of journalists, but killed fewer than 100 people.

Despite NGOs’ concerns, a major 2004 study by Professor Steve Ross of Columbia University found evidence that media coverage of aid operations is increasing. The number of articles in English-speaking publications worldwide mentioning AIDS in Africa jumped from 3,607 in 1998 to 19,375 in 2003.

Ross criticises journalists for a lack of specialist knowledge about humanitarian issues and sources, tight budgets, impatience and crisis fatigue. But he also criticises NGOs for inadequate media training, not sharing information publicly, confusing marketing with press relations, and not exploiting Internet-based tools.

Humanitarian communicators have to work harder to increase the visibility of ‘hidden’ crises. Cultivating relationships with journalists is far more important than issuing press releases, which often lie ignored. Reporters are more interested in sources.

Targeting the right journalists is important. Drought is more likely to be reported by the environment correspondent than the news desk. Speed is critical, while the story is ‘hot’. Agencies must stay perpetually alert, unencumbered by bureaucracy.

It’s useful to distinguish between news and current affairs. ‘Forgotten’ disasters are often chronic and diffuse, changing little day by day. Unlikely to qualify as news, such crises may feature as current affairs stories – especially on the websites of news organizations.

Meanwhile, issues generate stories. The recent heat waves and hurricanes in the developed world have galvanized media interest in global warming and ‘natural’ disasters. The scares and culprits associated with climate change are the stuff of headlines.

Furthermore, aid organizations have to exploit digital communications technology, by making photos, video and audio available to journalists lacking the budgets for field trips. Digital technology greatly facilitated TV coverage of the Darfur crisis during 2004. “Store-and-forward” digital compression has revolutionised TV news coverage from remote areas by allowing high-quality video to be sent on a narrow-band satellite phone call. NGO press officers organizing field visits for TV crews could take advantage of this. For bringing hidden crises to light, television is the key medium.

However, too much TV coverage brings its own dilemmas. An agile 24/7 media, projecting the full emotional impact of sudden disaster into living rooms within hours, fuels both public funding and the demand for instant action. This can prompt high-profile aid interventions that aren’t based on sound needs assessments.

While agencies should invest more in capturing local needs, the media are also to blame. Specially chartered transport aircraft roaring into the air get on the evening news; assessment missions don’t.

Another result of high-profile coverage is the prospect of raising too much money. MSF France closed its tsunami appeal on 3rd January, after raising six times more in a week that it had raised for Darfur in two months. Some organizations admitted they would have trouble spending all the money responsibly.

According to one aid worker in Sri Lanka, “Someone needs to ask whether it was really necessary to air-freight bottled water into the tsunami zone from Europe.” After all, principles of aid demand that disaster response should build on local capacities.

But during disasters, journalists and aid workers need each other – trading angles for profile. Criticising aid agencies in the press seems taboo – based on the premise that public confidence should not be undermined. But this may be changing. According to Professor Ross, “By a four-to-one margin, journalists say criticism and scepticism in the press about relief organizations has increased.” However, argues disaster expert John Twigg, journalists should avoid easy answers: “Media treatment of disasters is stereotyped. Relief is either heroic or failed – there is nothing in between.”

Some media trends actually favour humanitarians: the growing prominence of climate change, technical advances in video newsgathering, the rise of Africa as a geopolitical issue, posited links between poverty and terrorism, growth of peer-to-peer media and the approach of the 2015 millennium development goals. The Internet and 24-hour news have vastly increased the market for humanitarian testimony.

But NGOs must position themselves to capitalize on these trends, to think in terms of minutes not days; cultivate specialist correspondents; exploit new technology; develop solid media skills; issue fewer press releases and hold more press conferences; offer more field-based observations and fewer opinions.

Above all, humanitarian organizations must generate better content. Humanitarian communicators need to focus on human stories, because that is what audiences respond to. The closer their content resembles journalism or research, the more notice journalists – and the public – will take; the closer it resembles public relations, the less notice they will take.

Tricks of the trade: how to 'sell’ forgotten emergencies

According to analysis of 200 English-language newspapers worldwide, the tsunami generated more column inches in six weeks than the world’s top 10 ‘forgotten’ emergencies combined over the previous year.

The media blitz prompted unprecedented generosity. By February 2005, the international community had donated US$ 500 per person affected by the tsunami, compared to just 50 cents for each person affected by Uganda’s 18-year war.

How can aid agencies boost the media visibility of long-term, complex emergencies? Here are some practical tips:

  •  Invest in media relations, communications training and expertise, down to the local level.
  •  Keep up a dialogue with the media: provide background material on complex emergencies, but not 15 minutes before deadline.
  •  Put a number on it: death tolls give journalists pegs to hang their stories on. And they go some way towards quantifying the unimaginable.
  •  Bring in the big names: It’s controversial, but enlisting celebrities can work. The press follows the famous face and ends up reporting on the cause.
  • Make it visual: Nothing sells a story like a good picture. In disasters, aid agencies may have the only photos available.
  •  Be creative and proactive: Tell the bigger story through the eyes of individuals. Fit what you’re doing into the news agenda. Organize trips for reporters.
  • Never give up: In this game, persistence really does pay off