Impact of the media coverage of disasters


Chief Executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee Brendan Gormley discusses the media's role in covering disasters.

Originally published in The Independent, Monday, 9th May 2011.

The prestigious One World Media Awards took place in London on the 10th of May. Hosted by Jon Snow, this annual event celebrates film, broadcast, print and new media about the developing world. We aim to encourage and deepen mutual understanding between people across the world. I am a trustee of One World Media, but my day job is as Chief Executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), and for me the Awards are an important way of addressing some serious issues about the way such disasters are covered.

The DEC seeks to bring together goodwill and interest in the UK, the expertise of the leading UK aid agencies and the needs of survivors and local leaders when there is a major humanitarian crisis in one of the world’s poorest countries. The media are absolutely central in getting across messages from survivors and in rallying public concern here. The problem is that there can be a certain mismatch between what people see and hear, and the realities of disaster survivors’ needs.

It is quite clear to me that, if the British public get a sense of what a problem is, and are helped to see that something can be done about it, they are exceptionally generous. In fact the British public are global leaders in giving.  Last year alone they gave over £175m through the DEC following the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods. When we ran an appeal after the 2008 Burma/Myanmar cyclone, the UK public gave nearly £20m – more than all but a handful of world governments.

Yet at present there is often a mismatch because the public’s response, and thus the potential to raise money and humanitarian relief, largely mirrors the media’s coverage of a disaster, rather than actual unmet need. If we take the Japanese earthquake and tsunami as an example, we saw incredibly graphic pictures of the destruction and suffering. The instinctive reaction of many caring person was to give money. Yet Japan is a wealthy, developed country which was well placed to meet the needs of its own people even after such a devastating disaster. In reality, little international assistance was requested or required by the Japanese authorities to meet immediate needs.

In addition to leading to an imbalance between resources and needs, the understandably intense coverage of disasters like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami can create a sort of news ‘shadow’. Other less high profile disasters are more likely to be overlooked in their aftermath.  In addition, the public’s desire to give closely tracks the immediate visual and emotional impact of a disaster. Natural disasters, like earthquakes and floods, stimulate more giving than complex politically-generated disasters. Media and public attention is understandably less focused on these often chronic disasters, which can seem to happen in slow-motion as a security situation deteriorates and the impact on civilians increases.

Media interest in the increasing conflict in Ivory Coast was slow to come, for example. When it finally did come, humanitarian concerns inevitably focused on the appalling massacres of civilians.  The enormous impact of the displacement of over 900,000 people since late last year was largely overlooked. A large section of the population of Abidjan and the surrounding country has fled into transit and refugee camps, particularly in neighbouring Liberia. Here the host populations on the frontier of an already troubled country have been taking the strain, with families taking in refugees.

This problem remains unresolved yet coverage of the Ivory Coast has moved on rapidly while a massive unmet humanitarian need remains. In stark contrast to the generous funding available to an already well financed Japanese response, the UN appeal for Ivory Coast remains only 50% met.

Furthermore news coverage rarely explains how the survivors are actually best helped. The reality in Japan, Haiti and Liberia is that it has been local people and organisations which play the leading role in rescuing and supporting survivors. Our role is to assist them but this is under-reported.

Unless there is a dramatic ongoing problem it is also difficult to interest the media in the kind of sustained coverage that would demonstrate the strength and resilience of survivors. True, there was a flurry of interest first anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, but that tended to look exclusively at what had not been achieved, and the continuing political problems, rather than focusing on how people had begun to put their lives back together. They are doing this despite the extreme poverty and insecurity which predate the earthquake.

We at the DEC understand media priorities and indeed the interests and concerns of the public which drive them. We do however need to find a way to ensure that charitable giving and our aid efforts increasingly reflect the real needs of those seeking to cope in the aftermath of disasters. Once a story is on the agenda, the challenge for news editors in the mainstream media is to get beyond the stereotypes of victims alone in a devastated landscape, waiting passively for international angels of mercy to descend.  We need at minimum the context of chronic poverty that leaves so many people in poorer countries so vulnerable to disasters.  One World Media try to encourage editors here in the UK to do more and better. We hope that this year’s awards ceremony will be another step in that direction. 

The One World Media Awards took place in London on 10th May, hosted by Jon Snow.




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