The burning issue? How climate change stole the global news limelight

In 2007, the annual drought worsened by global warming means thousands will die in Western Africa, while in Eastern Congo, thousands are killed daily in civil violence.

This has gone on for years. As aid agencies tell it, there is nothing to differentiate these crises in terms of horror or need for international assistance. Something does, however, make one of them newsworthy and the other not.

A glance at the foreign content of Britain’s popular press will tell you what Reuters has proved through extensive analysis of the media’s coverage of humanitarian crises: conflicts involving British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan dominate foreign news coverage.

It is no surprise that an international crisis involving British troops and the potential loss of British lives has first dibs on our news pages. What is less easily explained is the intense media focus more recently on the humanitarian effects of global warming.

Assistant features editor at the Sunday Mirror Deidre O’Brien says the media interest reflects the growing interest in climate change at a grass-roots level:?’Possibly the interest is related to the fact that it has an impact on their own lives, certainly for parents who worry about the future they’re leaving for following generations. People want to know, they want information and it’s our job to inform them. It’s news.”

There is only room for so many causes at one time and, given all sections of the press have experienced significant budget cuts, now more than ever, the media suffers from limited resources.

There are only so many places a camera crew or foreign correspondent can be. Some humanitarian stories are bound to slip through the net.

There are still, however, unlikely headline grabbers, like the conflict in Darfur.Until 2004, despite an estimated 5,355,000 people having been internally displaced as a result of violent conflict, Darfur was what aid agencies call a ‘forgotten crisis’, an ongoing humanitarian disaster that didn’t make the news because it wasn’t new. In the past year, it has become one of the 10 most covered humanitarian stories in the world.

‘Obviously key to that is the involvement of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. If NGOs talk about Darfur, or George Clooney talks about Darfur, more people will sit up and listen to him,’O’Brien says.

Not only is this a celebrity-endorsed crisis but there is a direct link between the conflict in Darfur and water shortage due to global warming. It’s perhaps this two-pronged hook that makes Darfur more newsworthy than the humanitarian catastrophe bubbling away nearby in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The civilian deaths there represent the highest loss of civilian life since the Second World War but not enough to warrant sustained media interest.

Timothy Large, deputy editor at AlertNet, struggles to explain press aversion to the Congo conflict.

‘I think there is a feeling in newsrooms that it’s too complex, too hard to distil everything that’s going on, so why even bother? While it’s up to the journalist to tell the story in a simple yet not simplistic way, lack of familiarity means that’s often not so easy,’he says.

Certainly, newsrooms deliver the information their readers want to know but, by equal measure, they dictate what issues these same readers should want to hear about.

Glenda Cooper, a Guardian research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford analysing how the media covers humanitarian disasters, says: ‘There is a limit to the amount of information people can take in. People trust their favourite newspaper; there is a comfort in having these priorities made for you. Whether they always get it right is another matter.”

When it comes to humanitarian features, glossy magazines by and large follow the already prioritised news agenda, using compelling female accounts to tell the stories.

Marie Claire’s features director Miriam McMinn explains: ‘One has to to be realistic – we are a magazine that reflects news. With the best will in the world, we are not a fund-raising body; we are a magazine and we need to deliver empathetic stories that seem relevant to our readers on that day.”

This necessity of immediate relevance means a disaster that rumbles on with consistent but unremarkable atrocities will struggle to grab the wider media spotlight.

As ActionAid’s Tony Durham puts it: ‘If you’ve got something that just grinds on, like the conflict in Congo, with no set-piece battles, just endless squalid little incidents, it’s much harder to get the media’s interest than in something like the Boxing Day tsunami when, instantly, thousands of people were killed, homes destroyed and people displaced.”

Many editors cite ‘reader fatigue’as justification, claiming their readers want a clear solution to a crisis. In the case of the tsunami, people needed shelter. In the Congo, where complex politically motivated conflict has dragged on for decades and will continue for several more years at least, a reader’s cheque won’t help much.

This doesn’t deter the NGOs and charities, who insist if you have a strong enough story, you can get it covered.

Alertnet’s Tony Large would agree with them: ‘The climate-change angle is a very good way to get into any crisis. So many of these humanitarian stories have a climate-change angle. It is the big story of the 21st century.”

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