If I ask you to recall which humanitarian emergencies stand out in your mind, I can pretty well predict the top contenders that will appear. At the top of the list, the recent Haiti earthquake, most likely followed by the December 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. This year’s earthquakes in Chile and Tibet may also be on the list, as they’re fairly recent. Most of you will probably recall that there’s been a refugee crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, but you may be a little hazy around the dates and details of what was actually happening out there. Those of you with a broader understanding of the context may include the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Pakistan over the last 9 years in your analysis, while the older among you will recall events such as the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, the Kobe earthquake of 1995, the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 in California, or maybe the Mexico City earthquake of 1985.
I remember most of those events (except maybe the Mexico City earthquake, as I was a little young to be watching the news at the time, although I studied it at school later). The more recent ones I have a little more intimate knowledge and memories associated with, given my choice of profession (and a long list of other lower-profile emergencies to boot). The older ones I have particular images in my mind that relate: A stratospheric plume of grey ash over the Philippines; toppled segments of raised highway in Kobe; cars flattened beneath the Oakland Bridge in San Fransisco.
Disasters such as these stick in our minds for precisely that reason. The images that get broadcast into our homes via news and media outlets. The more relatable the image, the more likely it is to have an impact on us. The Boxing Day Tsunami was a shocking, rapid and overwhelming disaster which both stunned people by its scale, and also struck areas with which western donors were familiar (the beaches of southern Thailand, where many have taken vacations).
This is why natural disasters tend to have a greater pull on the public imagination than war-zones. They are more easily summed up by a photograph or a thirty-second video clip. They can be easily communicated.
Because of this, they also continue to captivate for longer. The shock value lingers. The fascination with destruction on that scale claws at the insides of our souls, searching for answers. Why? How? Could that happen to me? Why or why not?
Ultimately, of course, these images reach us because news media outlets choose to broadcast them. The longer that media outlets continue to broadcast, the more the events are likely to reach us, and have an impact on us (within parameters).
And the more we’re affected, the more likely we are to give to an emergency.
By contrast, there are emegencies that we never hear about, or which don’t have as much impact. For example, the displacement of Pakistanis following the (western-backed) military offensive into tribal areas in early 2009 was one of the largest and most rapid population displacements in the last century. However the humanitarian implications of the event, while overwhelming the capacity of NGOs and the UN to manage, got very little screen time compared to the warfighting itself.
The Darfur crisis did get some coverage, but comparitive to the needs, moderately little. In Darfur in excess of 200,000 people are thought to have died, and over the seven years since the conflict erupted, 3-4 million displaced, and 5-6 million affected. These numbers, standing alone, are relatable to the scale of the tsunami. When you examine them qualitatively, in fact, the extent of need and human suffering in Darfur is far greater than that suffered by the survivors of the tsunami. However Darfur has received just a fraction of the media attention- and just a fraction of the material support.
Similar emergencies that get little attention are things like the war and displacement in eastern DRC (ostensibly the highest death-toll of any conflict since World War II); routine food crises across the Sahel; the ongoing war and humanitarian emergency in Somalia; and a long, long list of other sorry situations where the UN and aid agencies struggle to operate on underfunded program budgets while people wrestle with a range of natural and human-made impediments to a full and healthy life.
The reason you hear little or nothing about these other emergencies is generally the fact that they don’t get much media air-time. There are in turn reasons for this, which I’ll discuss below.
However, the question which I wrestle with, and which I’ve asked myself many times in the past is, how much is our media accountable for which humanitarian emergencies get funded, and which get forgotten?
And I’d like to suggest, very.
Working part of my career in an NGO office based in a western country which works to raise funds for overseas emergencies, I am acutely aware of the interplay between media coverage and money-through-the-door. If a story gets headline time, we get cash, phone-calls, offers of assistance. If it stays in the headlines (Haiti, Tsunami) then we raise millions of dollars. By contrast, if a story doesn’t make the news much- or at all- we get next to nothing. The recent earthquakes in Chile and Tibet are good examples. Both had less than 3 days in the news media here, and we raised very little for either.
DRC, which remains one of the worst crises on the planet, gets almost no media airtime, except on obscure late-night news analysis or foreign correspondant shows. We get almost no money for it.
The correlation is solid. Even our own fundraising efforts are limited without the appeal of mass media. We can run advertisements or send letters asking for funding, but if the request is about something that the public knows nothing about, then we don’t get much back for our investment. As a rule, it is not financially worthwhile for us to do so, and a poor use of our resources. We simply don’t have the reach to be able to educate the public about what’s going on out there in the same way that the major news networks do.
In short, if it ain’t in the headlines, it ain’t getting paid.
News agencies, certainly in western countries, are free to run what stories they see fit. Or at least, what stories Rupert Murdoch sees fit. So how much should we hold them accountable? In principle, if news organizations choose to run a humanitarian crisis as a lead story for two weeks (as opposed to, say, a story about Paris Hilton, or the British Prime Minister insulting one of his constituents by accident), they could arguable transform the level of resources raised for that emergency.
By contrast, if they choose to not run a story on a particular crisis, they effectively damn it to obscurity, and can guarantee that it will be nearly impossible for agencies to raise funds from the general public.
And not even the general public. NGOs and the UN receive large amounts of funding from state governments. As well as recieving information through their own channels, these governments are influenced themselves by what gets reported in the news media, and also by what their constituents are clamouring about. If the public gets riled about a crisis, chances are the government will want to be seen to be doing something. The reverse is equally true. Will the Australian public be pleased to hear that their government has just contributed twenty million dollars of tax-payer’s money to some obscure war-zone they’ve never heard of? That’s not the sort of stunt that gets you re-elected.
The influence of news media on raising support for emergencies is hard to knock.
Of course, it’s only partly fair to blame media organizations for this process. They are responding to public demand. If stories are run that are not interesting to the public (long, complicated, lacking dynamic images, or uncomfortably confronting), then channels are changed, papers are not sold. Ratings go down. Profits go down.
So there’s an extent to which the public themselves, in their appetite for soft, easily-consumable newsertainment is equally guilty.
I’d argue that media itself has helped create this dynamic, in its quest to become ever more about entertaining the lowest common denominator, with fast-changing topics and brief soundbites that communicate a punchy message but little depth to an audience that wants to be stimulated but not challenged. Pitching to the lowest demoninator, attention-deficit consumerist junkie.
With different expectations about what media should be about, perhaps demand itself would be different?
Realistically, in my mind there’s two levels of responsibility. There’s what the news media portrays (both in terms of content and in terms of expectation). And there’s what the public demands. As a rule, people aren’t interested in educating themselves about world affairs. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. But let’s face it, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re well aware that there are all sorts of information resources out there about what’s going on in the humanitarian field, some of it listed down the right-hand column of this blog. Anybody who wants to know what’s going on out there can do so. They just have to spend a few minutes of their day learning.
But I submit that if the news media were routinely highlighting, in a balanced, intelligent and informative fashion, what was actually happening in humanitarian situations around the world (as opposed to cliched fifteen-second summaries to a dramatic soundtrack), they’d change the way the donor public looks at world affairs, and ideally change both the giving and the living practices of that public to be more geared around global realities and understandings (and not reflexive reactions and cereal-box interpretations).
Yes, there are economic realities. Yes, there’s donor fatigue. But I’d like to believe that, on the whole, people do care about the plight of others. And the more that those ‘others’ in humanitarian crises overseas can be brought perceptively closer to those with the power to give and act, the more we’ll see people and societies making changes and sacrifices for a greater good.
I believe international media has a lot to answer for to the people caught in forgotten emergencies around the world.