Veteran Daily Mail writer Ann Leslie has described the relationship between journalists covering humanitarian crises and the NGOs dealing with them as a "Faustian pact", claiming that the press is never impartial.
Speaking at a Reuters AlertNet panel discussion on the coverage of humanitarian crises and whether the media fairly represent children in dangerous situations, Leslie said that some NGOs had complained that journalists had flown into disaster zones saying: "Get me a dying baby, I want it now."
Leslie said: "The NGOs will co-operate, because it's a kind of Faustian pact between them and journalists. The heartwrenching image will earn the photographer money as well as the NGOs."
She added: "One of the dangers for journalists is we are not impartial — we never are. I wrote about the death of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy caught in crossfire. Not very long after that, there was a baby killed by a Palestinian sniper. Her name is not known outside Israel — and not a great deal inside Israel — because her parents had committed the crime of belonging to the wrong political group. Because most of the press is now pro-Palestinian, they didn't feature the 10-month-old baby at all, on the grounds that the child was innocent, but her parents weren't."
Leslie said that when she started in journalism, photographs of victims in man-made disasters would always include a teddy bear.
She said: "We knew that some photographers used to take teddy bears in their kit, because then people's emotions would be aroused."
Other panellists included The Independent's diplomatic editor Anne Penketh and The Times foreign correspondent Janine Di Giovanni.
Di Giovanni said: "There needs to be a differentiation between this thuggish journalist and the rest of us. In the aftermath of Kosovo, I spent two months working on one story about children and women who have allegedly been raped, and I remember other reporters who had worked on the story. No one was so boorish as to say: ‘Have you been raped?' I think there's much more sensitivity involved. We're not all thugs."
Leslie said she was aware of one NGO that disagreed with pictures being printed of African children in the nude, because the Western reader might feel uncomfortable with them.
"If the photo journalist went with clothes to put on these children, it would distort what the actual situation is. Then we'd be accused of the teddy bear again," she said.
The discussion follows the publication of research by Reuters based on a study of 110 English-language newspapers across the world.
Iraq was the country that received the most media coverage — more than half of the total number of foreign stories analysed. The conflict was covered almost 26,000 times in a year.
Sudan, Uganda and Congo, the three countries voted the most dangerous for a child according to more than 100 humanitarian officials and international journalists, received just one seventh of the coverage given to Iraq.