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Humanitarian journalism in crisis

11 January 2019
Author: Dr Martin Scott

A recent survey, commissioned by Human Appeal, has highlighted the UK public’s stark lack of awareness about conflicts around the world. 

Two thirds of UK adults are not aware of the recent violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (66%) or South Sudan (63%). And 42% of UK adults do not even know that there is a war in Yemen, despite it causing “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”.

How can this be? How is it that such a lack of awareness remains at a time when technology allows people to be better informed about world events than ever before? 

Perhaps the most important reason is an acute lack of regular news coverage of humanitarian affairs. 

Late last year we published a report entitled The State of Humanitarian Journalism which documented the scale of this. One of our key findings was that, with the exception of major “emergencies”, very few commercial news organisations cover humanitarian issues. 

In fact, the only international news outlets regularly covering humanitarian crises are a handful of news outlets supported largely by states or private foundations. Examples include Al Jazeera English, the Guardian Global Development site, IRIN News, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and Voice of America. 

Quality reporting

While journalists are often criticised for sensationalistic and de-contextualised news coverage of conflicts, our research shows that these particular news organisations tend to do the opposite. That is, they offer sustained and detailed coverage, regularly producing features, analysis pieces and even some campaigning reports. 

Furthermore, while journalists are often accused of producing homogenous constructions of disasters, we suggest that these news outlets can actually vary significantly [PDF] in how they cover such crises. For instance, we found that Thomson Reuters focused on stories about dramatic and timely events, while the specialist humanitarian news outlet IRIN wrote thematic pieces and analysis, targeted at global audiences.

Finally, we offer evidence to suggest that audiences may be more interested in humanitarian journalism than many journalists think. In the Aid Attitudes Tracker, a largescale survey of audiences in the UK, France, Germany and the US, more people claimed to follow news about “humanitarian disasters” (59%) either “closely” or “fairly closely” than any other type of international news.1

Despite these caveats, though, we make clear that humanitarian journalism is in crisis. Our survey of individuals involved in the aid sector, for example, shows that 73% of respondents felt that mainstream news media does not produce enough coverage of humanitarian affairs. Furthermore, we found that only 12 news outlets reported on four humanitarian events we analysed in 2016 (the ongoing crisis in South Sudan, the 2016 Aceh earthquake, the World Humanitarian Summit and the 2017 UN appeal for humanitarian funding), and one of them has since closed. 

In response, we call for the aid sector, governments and foundations to recognise that support of humanitarian journalism is crucial to making responses to suffering more effective. Moreover, it is vital that funding for humanitarian news is given on a secure, ongoing basis and without strings attached.

The State of Humanitarian Journalism report is the latest publication from the ongoing Humanitarian Journalism Research Project by Dr Martin Scott, Dr Kate Wright and Dr Mel Bunce. This AHRC-supported research has involved interviews with nearly 200 journalists and media funders; as well as surveys and extensive newsroom observations. More information about this project can be found here

Notes

  1. Clarke, H., Hudson, D., Hudson, J., Stewart, M., Twyman, J. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2013-2018) Aid Attitudes Tracker

About the author

Dr Martin Scott
University of East Anglia

Dr Martin Scott is a senior lecturer in media and international development in the School of International Development. He is author of Media and Development and currently the principal investigator of a research project on humanitarian journalism.