Lights, camera, public reaction

Glenda Cooper

The increasingly close relationship between NGOs and the media has provoked criticism and raised concerns in recent years, but securing television and newspaper coverage of humanitarian disasters is vital if aid agencies are to secure funding and support from the general public and governments alike, writes Glenda Cooper 

The head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was blunt. Returning from Somalia at the beginning of September, Dr Uruni Karunakaru attacked fellow aid agencies and the media for “glossing over” the reality of the situation in the Horn of Africa, and for failing to treat the public like adults and properly explain the limitations on delivering aid in difficult regions. “There is a con, there is an unrealistic expectation being peddled that you give your £50 and suddenly those people are going to have food to eat,” he said after visiting Mogadishu. His words were not greeted with enthusiasm by other organisations such as Oxfam, who feel it is difficult enough to try to interest the public in food crises without attacking other agencies – or media representation. 

The old saying asks the question: does a tree in the forest really fall if no one hears it? The modern equivalent could be: does a famine really happen if there isn’t a television crew to film it? NGOs increasingly fear it doesn’t. That is why their media operations have grown and grown over the past 20 years, to resemble sleek multimedia newsrooms with millions of pounds poured into communications budgets, employing former journalists from major news organisations who can film, write or utilise social media to national standards. And that is why they also spend so much time and energy trying to influence the media agenda: seeking to make the press interested in a slow-onset food crisis, such as that in the Horn of Africa, at the optimum time. 

Not long after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Jan Egeland, the then UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, summed up the way that the world’s disaster victims are treated, caught up in a “kind of humanitarian sweepstake in which… every night 99 percent of them lose, and one percent wins”. The tsunami survivors were such big winners that the Red Cross’s World Disasters Report 2006 estimated that those affected received on average $1,241 per survivor – 50 times as much as the worst-funded crises in that year. 

The tsunami is an extreme example of this imbalance, but the phenomenon has been repeated in more recent disasters – Oxfam America raised just $3,499 in the three days after the 2010 Chilean earthquake compared to $2.9 million in the three days after the earthquake in Haiti. But why? One of the most recent attempts to answer this came in 2007, when researchers from Stockholm University looked at the US government’s response to 5,000 disasters and concluded that it depended on what other newsworthy events were happening at the same time – such as the Olympic Games or the Colombine shootings. The only plausible explanation is that relief decisions are driven by the intensity of the media’s coverage of disasters. By using econometric calculations, the researchers concluded that: “2.4 extra minutes spent on the first three news segments decreases the probability that a disaster is covered in the news by four percentage points and the probability that the disaster receives relief by three percentage points.” To put this in context, only about 10 percent of disasters are covered in the news to start with, so the effects are sizeable. 

For every person killed by a volcano, 40,000 people must die in a drought to reach the same media coverage. Similarly, it requires 40 times as many peope to die in an African disaster to achieve the same attention as for a similar disaster in Eastern Europe 

The researchers also found that the type of disaster – the dramatic as opposed to the long term – and its location have a direct affect on its ‘newsworthiness’ and thus on aid flows. They wrote: “For every person killed in a volcano disaster, 40,000 people must die in a drought to reach the same probability of media coverage.

Similarly, it requires 40 times as many killed in an African disaster to achieve the same expected media coverage as for a disaster in Eastern Europe of similar type and magnitude.” 

It is, therefore, no surprise that while NGOs have little control over a sudden crisis, they spend increasing amounts of time and money trying to time the release of a slow-onset disaster for maximum impact. “Like all organisations who engage with the media, the timing of the release of a story is very important,” says Ian Bray of Oxfam GB, who believes this is something the media is happy to go along with. “The mainstream media is well tuned to working with embargoes so that they can report in depth on an issue by having the information beforehand and having their media products in place… Without the embargo it would be difficult for journalists to report sufficiently in depth.” 

When Oxfam GB wanted to launch an appeal for a chronic emergency in Chad in 2007, they delayed it until they had organised a trip with the veteran war photographer Don McCullin who produced images of the food crisis and pro-bono work with Saatchi’s, a contemporary art gallery in London , to build a replica refugee tent. These plans resulted in an exclusive with the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News, a photo essay in The Independent and a journalist trip with The Guardian. But it took six weeks of planning. Should they have waited that long before raising the alarm on Chad? “We had to find a way the media could tell this story,” says Bray. “We sent a photographer, who the media would be interested in, and on his return, to make sure we had maximum impact, we timed the release of the media story with the launch of our appeal.” 

Should they have raised the alarm earlier? Would anyone have responded? NGOs say that while an earthquake or flood commands immediate attention, slow-onset disasters like famines require major ingenuity in order to interest journalists. “Releasing news on a disaster is not about cynical manipulation of the media,” says Anjali Kwatra, head of news at ActionAid. “It’s all about ensuring maximum coverage so we are able to help as many people as possible. So, for example, if we were going to put out a press release about a disaster and another massive story broke at the same time, we might delay that release until the following day in order that it didn’t get lost. But in fact it’s usually very difficult for aid agencies to control the news agenda or timings of stories.” 

Bray agrees: “The East Africa food crisis has been a long, drawn-out process which the media finds very difficult to cover and is only really able to cover if there are ‘events’ within that process. The UN announcement that parts of the crisis zones have witnessed the worse drought for 60 years became one of those events, so did the announcement that there was famine in parts of Somalia.” 

“We would love to control the media but at best we have an influence,” says Dominic Nutt, associate director of communications at World Vision. “The reality is that the media wants images and if we can provide them, brilliant.” But if not, the aid agencies have little power, as one former national journalist at another British aid agency sums it up: “No TV, no money. No dramatic pictures, no TV.” So, while MSF may attack the media for “glossing over” the reality in Somalia, agencies will still seek to work with them. 

About the author:

Glenda Cooper is a former journalist and Guardian Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. She is currently studying for a PhD at City University looking at the reporting of disasters.


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