Trying to make a story out of a crisis

Jones investigates the reasons behind the claim that journalists
throughout the world appear to ignore so many international
humanitarian tragedies

For a few brief weeks, the
tsunami brought the interests of the media, charities and other
humanitarian relief agencies into perfect alignment. The drama and
scale of the tragedy created huge demand for story angles, which
charities and other relief organisations were only too happy to supply
on their way to garnering unprecedented publicity and funding.

But any hopes that relief professionals might have nursed that close
tsunami co-operation would morph into better coverage of the dozens of
other humanitarian crises which scar the globe, are fading fast as
business returns to normal.

In recent debates hosted by Reuters
Foundation in London and New York, relief professionals, adopting the
moral high ground, have complained that journalists continue to turn a
blind eye to the world’s most serious humanitarian crises.

meanwhile, have resolutely defended their coverage, saying that
audiences are vulnerable to compassion fatigue and that relief agencies
simply don’t understand what constitutes ‘news’.

In order to
inform the debate over whether it is possible to increase humanitarian
crisis coverage, Reuters AlertNet has commissioned research into how
the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies are covered by newspapers
around the world.

We asked more than 100 leading relief world
professionals and personalities with an interest in the aid world, to
nominate the crisis they would most like the media to focus upon in
2005 (table A).

Heading the league table is Democratic Republic
of Congo, where up to four million people have been killed in conflict
since 1998. Next comes Northern Uganda – an emergency that has seen 1.6
million people driven from their homes during an 18-year insurrection.
Third is conflict in Sudan, including Darfur, where a two-year old
campaign of killing and rape against non-Arabs has displaced two
million people.

The remainder of this table comprises HIV/AIDS
(as it affects developing nations), West Africa (conflicts in Ivory
Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone), Colombia’s displaced millions,
Chechnya, Nepal, Haiti, and a group of infectious diseases including
malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhoea.

A look at the coverage of
these emergencies in the 200 English language major circulation
newspapers contained in the online press database run by Factiva –
everything from the Accra Mail in Ghana to the Vanguard in Nigeria via
the New York Times – shows that coverage for the Indian Ocean tsunami
in its first six weeks was greater than for the top 10 emergencies
combined over the past year.

Perhaps more worryingly, the research suggests that coverage of the top 10 appears to have fallen since the tsunami (Table B).

polled cited a raft of reasons why such emergencies tend to get
forgotten; not least the challenge of distilling complex crises such as
Congo’s, down to simple sound bites or finding a thread of hope to help
audiences empathise.

“The story is always the same,” said Channel
4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum. “It induces despair. It’s
expensive and dangerous, and one feels that there are no solutions and
no end to it all.”

Victims of natural disasters are viewed as
innocent bystanders caught out by nature, whereas analysts said
long-running humanitarian crises such as complex civil conflicts were
often difficult to package as fresh-sounding stories. Logistical
problems and tight budgets also put off news editors, say analysts.

countries such as Zimbabwe and Sudan, governments routinely refuse to
give journalists visas, while reporting in Congo can mean hitching a
ride on an aid plane, trekking through the jungle or guessing when the
next ferry will arrive. And all for a story unlikely to make the front

“If you had a similar natural disaster (to the tsunami)n in
Africa three months from now, I don’t think you’d have the same media
coverage or the same consequences, because it’s only maybe once a year
that the Western public is willing to be moved by disasters on that
level,” said Gorm Rye Olsen, a researcher at the Danish Institute for
International Studies.

Every now and then, an astounding statistic can make a crisis newsworthy.

Rescue Committee (IRC) has calculated the toll of Congo’s war and
estimates that 3.8 million people have died since 1998.

mortality survey got … a surprising second wind because of the
tsunami,” said Anne C. Richard, IRC’s vice president for government
relations and advocacy. “Journalists wanting to contrast the response
with deaths elsewhere were able to draw from the dismal figures in our

“In an analysis of which aid groups are getting most
name-checked in the media, UN-mandated organisations including the
World Health Organisation, World Food Programme and the U.N.

Fund, Unicef, loom large. But best performer overall is the Red
Cross/Red Crescent movement – perhaps reflecting the strength of its
network of 181 national societies. And there are strong showings from
NGOs like Oxfam, MSF/Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and
World Vision.”

Without a topical tsunami to use as a news peg to
put humanitarian issues on the media agenda, stories of geopolitical
importance such as Middle East turmoil and “the war on terror” hog the
international limelight, analysts maintain.

“Getting ‘forgotten’
crises into the media is hard enough in Britain, but one theme that
comes up each time the issue is discussed with journalists and aid
workers, is how easier it is here than in the US.

A comparison of English-language papers to their American rivals shows that the US papers devoted less space to this disaster.

One ray of hope for those believing that ‘forgotten’

merit greater coverage, is that all the journalists involved in Reuters
Foundation debates on the issue believe that the bar for getting
humanitarian stories into the media has, at least for the time being,
been lowered.

That this hasn’t automatically meant greater
coverage is blamed by journalists on a lack of novel story ideas.
Leaving aside the issue of whose responsibility it should be to come up
with those ideas, relief organisations are being challenged to become
more imaginative; to think more like journalists. 

Mark Jones is editor of Reuters AlertNet ( – the humanitarian news portal run by Reuters Foundation.

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