Disasters and the media
How should journalists report disasters and humanitarian relief operations? What is the right balance between stirring the sympathies of viewers and readers, which will increase contributions to the response, and pointing out the problems and the gaps? Between compassion and complexity? That was the subject of a recent symposium, organised by NGO Plan UK, with a panel of aid workers and journalists, in the wake of a disaster-ridden 2010. The starting point was a poll of the British public by ComRes, with interesting if apparently contradictory results: half of those responding said they were likely to donate to charities following natural disasters (women are more generous than men), and almost two thirds said they found coverage of children affected by disasters particularly compelling. At the same time nearly 60% agreed that media coverage was often too sentimental or sensationalist.
There is no doubt of the importance of media reporting for fund-raising. 90% of people recalled having seen or heard Haiti earthquake coverage. The individual response to the Haiti tragedy, in Britain and elsewhere around the world, was astonishingly generous. The British media also did an effective job of reporting the massive Pakistan floods. The British public responded correspondingly well here too. In other countries where journalists were not interested in a less apparently dramatic and media-friendly disaster than Haiti, public generosity was mainly notable for its absence.
Journalists and aid workers have an awkward symbiosis. The journalists make all the difference to the aid workers ability to do their job, since nothing can happen without money – and much of this, for the NGOs in particular, has to come through appeals to the public. These depend on public awareness of the issues, which in turn largely depends on media coverage. The aid workers help give journalists access to the facts and the areas affected, and provide the human interest stories which make gripping reporting. But their roles are very different. It is not the media’s job to raise money for charities, no matter how sympathetic they may be to the plight of disaster victims. Their accountability is to the wider public interest, and they have to report the truth as they see it, even if that is sometimes uncomfortable for aid organisations. For their part, aid workers are not there primarily to help journalists. Their accountability is to the victims of the tragedy, who are the beneficiaries of their help, as well as to those who give them money.
Haiti was a difficult test for all concerned. Journalists felt bound to record the apparently slow arrival of emergency aid immediately after the earthquake, and the subsequent weaknesses of some parts of the relief and reconstruction operation. They felt some aid agencies did not give them an honest enough picture of what was happening and the coordination challenges. Aid workers believed that some reporters were not giving enough weight to the uniquely difficult operating conditions in Haiti and the dysfunctional context of that unhappy country, especially right at the beginning – and even subsequently were too ready to pick holes. Nothing is easier in any disaster than to find someone who has not been reached or thinks he/she has not been given the right help.
Gaza and the humanitarian consequences of Israel’s ‘Cast Lead’ military operation also caused considerable strains. The issues can be even more complicated in a conflict, particularly a very sensitive one such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. For example the BBC’s refusal to broadcast a combined Gaza appeal from Britain’s NGOs, through the Disaster Emergency Committee, on the grounds that this would be impossible to square with its editorial neutrality, continues to rankle, even if all concerned have tried to move on.
Can sentimental and sensationalist reporting be avoided, and viewer/reader attention still held? The journalists thought so. The main need was for stories to be compelling. Human interest was clearly an important part of this but should be handled in such a way that the overall situation was illustrated, not exaggerated or over-dramatised. At the same time there is no easy way round the ‘good news is not news’ dilemma. Perfectly handled disasters will pass without comment whereas mistakes and problems are newsworthy. Aid workers wanted reporters to avoid being simplistic, and to follow up once the immediate crisis had passed.
Beyond the context of any particular disaster, how can equal attention be devoted to comparable disasters when some attract the spotlight of the media, because of their geographical location or political profile, and others never get a mention? There is a shared press/aid agency responsibility here to make sure significant human suffering does not go unreported or uncared for, wherever it may occur.
Conclusion? There is room for improvement on both sides. Reporters need to make sure they do not fall into obvious aid cliché sequences – hunt for survivors/risk of disease/aid failures – and understand and make clear the context, however politically or otherwise complicated. Aid agencies need to be more professional about their media relations and ready to share the reality of their experiences on the ground openly and honestly. It is important to get this right. Otherwise there is a risk of a negative narrative about aid responses which will discourage giving and demoralise those devoting their lives to help others on the ground. The victims of disasters would be the double losers.
Sir John Holmes is patron of the international children’s charity Plan UK and is the former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.Tagged in: Aid worker, gaza, Haiti, humanitarian relief, journalism, natural disaster, Pakistan flood, reporter
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