Strategies for Aid and Media Agencies in the News Coverage of Humanitarian Emergencies
by Humanitarian Practice Network September 1994

The whole area of media coverage of humanitarian emergencies is replete with issues concerning the way the coverage is prepared and presented, the images that are used, the impressions they create, and the influence that it has on the response to particular emergencies.

A notion which appears to be gaining currency is that the extent of TV News coverage of an emergency rather than the scale of humanitarian needs alone influences the level of resources allocated to particular emergencies. Recently for instance the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Dr Cornelius Sammarunga, has been trying to draw attention to what he terms `the Forgotten Emergencies’ in countries like Liberia, Afghanistan and Angola.

He sees the lack of coverage of these emergencies by TV companies as being an important factor in the lack of attention being given to such conflicts by the international community. To encourage more extensive coverage of these emergencies the ICRC increasingly `hosts’ visits by TV film crews to the scenes of such conflicts. Quantitative evidence to support the notion that the extent of TV coverage influences the level of resources allocated to a particular emergency is presently limited.

However, it is possible to see why this influence might be increasing: the number of humanitarian emergencies around the world is increasing; the resources allocated by the international community for responding to them are limited (even though they represent a substantial increase over previous levels); and the techniques for comparing relative levels of `need’ between such emergencies are poorly developed.

There is a pressing need for research on the complex relationship between media organisations, donor organisations and humanitarian agencies in the coverage of humanitarian emergencies by the media and the response to them by the international relief system.

Another important dimension of the media coverage of humanitarian emergencies is that TV News coverage is the principal source of information on developing countries for the majority of the western public.

Yet such coverage invariably focuses on major political events, conflicts and disasters and serves to create a distorted image of the developing world where famine and conflicts are thought to be rife, affecting a much higher proportion of the population of developing countries than is actually the case.

Taking this second aspect as its starting point The Annenberg Washington Programorganised a roundtable meeting in Washington and a smaller working group meeting in London during 1993 to examine issues of media coverage of disasters and humanitarian emergencies and to develop practical strategies for media and relief organisations to improve the coverage of humanitarian emergencies and disasters and reduce the distorting effects resulting from the concentration of news coverage upon extreme events.

Participants in these meetings included reporters, editors, producers, academics and senior relief agency personnel.

The product of these meetings was a six-page summary by Fred Cate produced earlier this year Media, Disaster Relief and Images of the Developing World: Strategies for Rapid, Accurate and Effective Coverage of Complex Stories from Around the Globe.

This paper also forms part of a recently published collection of papers under the title International Disaster Communication: Harnessing the Power of Communications to Avert Disasters and Save Lives.

Specific strategies were suggested for media organisations and for development and humanitarian agencies. The specific strategies for development and humanitarian agencies included the following points.

Articulate and evaluate communications strategies. Agencies should publicly articulate their strategy for communicating with the media and the public. What are the purposes of those communications – to raise money, inform the public, change public opinion, motivate political action, promote the organisation? Conflicts among these goals should be explicitly acknowledged.

Communications strategies should be regularly evaluated to determine their effectiveness, relationship to the organisation’s goals and impact.

Relief organisations should regularly evaluate their communications strategies for their impact on public understanding and ethical and professional appropriateness.

Train personnel to work with the media. Agencies should provide training, particularly for personnel in the field, on how to work with the media so as to improve the timeliness, quality and accuracy of reporting about developing countries. Field offices might regularly identify stories warranting media coverage which head offices might then try to interest media organisations in covering.

Assistance to the news organisations might be provided including the provision of indigenous spokespeople and logistical support. Agencies should also try to link stories to those events relating to developing countries which are traditionally covered by western media such as meetings of the IMF and World Bank.

Evaluate media content. Agencies should evaluate media coverage for accuracy, quality, completeness, timeliness and professionalism.

Excellent media coverage should be recognised and used to help improve other reporting. Inaccuracies or misperceptions should be corrected through direct contact with the media and reporters involved, letters to the editor, guest columns, counter-information and other means available.

Create alternative programming. Agencies should work to facilitate documentaries and other programming that provides a more complete image of developing countries than that conveyed by TV News items.

Adopt standards for communications with the public. Many relief agencies – individually and cooperatively – have adopted standards for their communications with the public. For example, InterAction requires its members to `respect the dignity, values, history, religion and culture of the people served by the programmes.

They shall neither minimise nor overstate the human and material needs of those whom it assists’. SCF-UK has also adopted standards for communicating with the public: `The images and text used in all communications must be accurate and avoid stereotypes and cliches…..Attempts should be made where possible to identify and quote people being photographed or interviewed.

If they wish to remain anonymous, their requests should be honoured. Wherever possible the views and experiences of the people interviewed should be communicated.’

For copies of the publications contact:

The Annenberg Washington Programme
The Willard Office Building
1455 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Suite 200
Washington DC 20004
USA
Tel: (1 202) 393 7100
Fax: (1 202) 638-2745

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