Issue 44 - Article 11

Media and message: communicating crises

October 6, 2009
Joanna Matthews

Humanitarian agencies rely heavily on the media to raise awareness of crises and generate income. For the media, however, the driving force is the search for a story. Despite levels of death and destruction far outstripping the acute crises which seize the headlines, chronic emergencies such as civil wars and ongoing famines are neither immediate nor spectacular enough to warrant extensive coverage. Millions have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), making the conflict there the deadliest since the Second World War, dwarfing the combined death-tolls of all the other high-profile natural disasters and acts of terrorism of the past decade. In contrast, the Indian Ocean tsunami, which caused 187,000 deaths, received more media attention in the first six weeks after it struck than the emergencies in the DRC, northern Uganda and Darfur combined over a whole year. The result of this media blitz was that, by February 2005, the international community had donated $550 per person affected by the tsunami, compared to just $9.40 for each person affected by conflict in the DRC. The Charities Aid Foundation in the UK estimates that donors gave around £1 per head less to other charities in 2004/5 than they would have done had it not been for the tsunami appeal – equivalent to £48 million (around $80 million) diverted from other causes

A quantitative survey of press coverage reveals that, in terms of column inches, acute disasters attract significantly more attention in proportion to their actual severity than long-term crises, with a strong correlation with the amount of money donated by the public. But issues of quality as well as quantity seem to play a key role in this process. A content analysis of a representative sample of UK newspaper coverage from the Indian Ocean Tsunami and the war in DRC reveals a number of trends that can be seen as either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, i.e. likely to encourage or deter donations.

‘Positive coverage’: the Indian Ocean tsunami

The tsunami represents a disaster so apocalyptic in its scale and so fertile in its media applicability that it provides a paradigm for ‘positive’ coverage in terms of the issues that excite the media and consequently encourage the British public to ‘dig deep’. A ‘Wave of Death’, it ‘tore children from their parents’ arms’. As a natural disaster that showed man pitted against the elements, the tsunami provided a politically neutral story of universal interest. The poignancy of the disaster was increased by its timing; it struck on Boxing Day, which meant that the media could tap into seasonal philanthropy, emphasising that, ‘as Britain wallows in the excesses of Christmas, Britons should direct their wallets eastwards’. Unusually for natural catastrophes, it was a story touching Western interests as developed countries mourned their own lost citizens and were brought closer to the realities of disaster. Human interest is a key factor, and emotive stories of Western loss were a powerful feature of the coverage; The Times reported the loss of three members of film director Richard Attenborough’s family, underlining the indiscriminate terror of the wave, engulfing celebrities and ordinary folk alike.

The response of the public soon became a story in its own right as Britons gave at a rate of £1 million an hour. The press congratulated the public on its altruism, The Sunday Times saying that ‘the British public should be feeling a little better about itself this morning’. This fervent philanthropy and self-congratulation in turn perpetuated the discourse of ‘them’ and ‘us’, in which the West is portrayed as ‘expert, the holders of life-saving knowledge, providers and saviours’, while the Indian Ocean countries are depicted ‘as chaotic, foolish and as recipients and victims’. Though not political in its origins, the story acquired political endorsement as the nation’s leaders responded to the public mood, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair promising that the UK government would surpass whatever the general public contributed. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the tsunami generated a wealth of dramatic, terrifying images from holidaymakers and photojournalists alike.

When looking at the aspects of the tsunami that provoked this spate of media attention and this outpouring of aid, it is hard to disentangle the motivations of the media from the motivations of the British public, as the press will always choose to report primarily on what they know will interest their readers. But it is undeniable that the discourses of disaster used in the tsunami struck a powerful chord, stimulating unparalleled charitable giving.

‘Negative’ coverage: the conflict in the DRC

Meanwhile, events that happen to the world’s poorest people in countries that are off the Western ‘radar’ may simply be ignored by the media because they do not contain enough of the positive triggers discussed above. But ‘negative’ coverage may also take the form of exposure that is in some way hostile or critical; rather than focusing on the facts of a crisis and the humanitarian toll it exacts, it concentrates instead on damaging stereotypes of countries, criticisms of governments and other agencies, evocations of guilt or allegations of corruption.

Unlike the act of God of the tsunami, the DRC conflict is often presented as somehow self-inflicted, a convoluted and confusing conflict impervious to outside understanding. As The Guardian put it, ‘both groups are armed by the same master, Rwanda … it’s hard to see why they’re fighting’. The military nature of conflict in the DRC has been emphasised by the British media, a trait which may discourage a more generous response from the public. In situations of conflict, civil society often clamours for a political response, such as intervention to end the war, over a humanitarian one; as a result, if the media plays up the conflict and disregards the humanitarian needs it creates, charitable giving is likely to be less generous.

The discourse of corruption and brutality also serves to cultivate a negative stereotype of Africa as a continent beyond hope and help. Rather than encouraging sympathy, it may simply reinforce what one commentator has called ‘afro-pessimism’ – a post-colonial perception of a homogenous block of uncivilised people incapable of self-government. In addition, it can pander to a sort of morbid fascination with a part of the world which is disjointed from us in the West, geographically and culturally. In this sort of coverage, civilians are reduced to nameless extras, lurking in the shadows while Western aid workers or celebrity tourists occupy centre stage. In other words, Africa has become an image of disaster. We have come to expect it, and our expectations are reinforced by the media; when through bafflement or boredom we fail to respond, media coverage declines still further.


However independent-minded we like to think we are, it is indisputable that the media shape our perceptions of many issues, and that knowingly or unknowingly we absorb the information and opinions which they feed us. We rely on the media to keep us up to date with the ever-shifting patterns of disaster, conflict and poverty in our high-speed world. If journalists produce a particularly stirring story, we may feel moved to make a charitable donation. Yet editors do not prioritise crises according to humanitarian need or objective levels of severity, but rather by stories, by images, by drama. They select stories based on their experience of what sells papers, and what the British public wants to read. The under-reported crises across the world relating to poverty, to civil war, to fractious politics and, arguably, to all things African, however devastating, fail to ‘tick the right boxes’. So begins a vicious spiral whereby crises get relegated to the league of ‘forgotten emergencies’: lack of coverage, lack of awareness, lack of public sympathy, lack of financial support.

It should be stressed that this is not a criticism of the British media. Rather, it serves to demonstrate the mobilising effect that their coverage has on the mass consciousness of Britain, and to suggest that the public, aid agencies and the media themselves should be more aware of the power of that effect. Every party needs to adopt a level of responsibility, and move to improve relations and communications. From the public perspective, we perhaps need to analyse more carefully the way in which we respond to acute disasters, and recognise that, however commendable and urgent our generosity, it rarely provides a sustainable solution. We also need to be aware of the limitations of relying on one source of information, and look elsewhere for explanation and detail, both from aid organisations and specialist humanitarian media outfits and from all the new sources of information made available by digital technology. On the part of aid organisations a further effort is needed to improve relations with the mass media in terms of supplying current, comprehensive human-interest updates on crises that need a response from the general public – as well as news on any positive outcomes that have emerged and sustainable solutions that have been implemented. In-house media and professional marketing campaigns are also essential in order to harness a response from a public bombarded with choice and anaesthetised by disaster.

It is difficult to fully disentangle who is responsible for the often conspicuous discrepancies between humanitarian need and media coverage. What is clear, however, is that, in a world littered with disasters, and with increased access to media, from traditional newspapers to online news 24 hours a day, there is an imperative need for accurate, responsible, transparent and trustworthy reporting systems. It may transpire that, however much information the British public are given about the relative severity of particular crises, they will still be more reluctant to donate money for long-term, sustainable, humanitarian causes than for acute emergencies. How to change that particular mentality will be the next big challenge.

Joanna Matthews is a freelance copy-writer and social marketer for charitable and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects. Her email address is: This article is taken from a Masters dissertation submitted to the University of Westminster comparing four major humanitarian crises: the Indian Ocean tsunami, the War in the DRC, the earthquake in Pakistan and the War in Sudan.

References and further reading

R. Bennett and M. Daniel, ‘Media Reporting of Third World Disasters: The Journalist’s Perspective’, Disaster Prevention and Management, 11, 2002.

N. Gowing, ‘Noisy Emergencies and the Media in Humanitarian Practice’ Humanitarian Exchange, 18, 2002.

L. Ndangam, ‘Heart of Darkness – Western Media Rhetoric on Africa: Constructing and Associating Meaning over Time’, paper presented at the 23rd Conference and General Assembly of the International Association for Mass Media Research, Barcelona, 21–26 July 2002.

C. Nursey, ‘The International Tsunami Response: Showcase or Circus?’, Humanitarian Exchange, 32, 2005.

G. R. Olsen, K. Hoyen and N. Carstensen, ‘Humanitarian Crises: What Determines the Level of Emergency Assistance? Media Coverage, Donor Interest and the Aid Business’, Disasters, 27, 2003.

R. Omaar and A. de Waal, ‘Disaster Pornography from Somalia’, Media and Values 61, 1993.

T. Skelton, Representations of the ‘Asian Tsunami’ in the British Media (Singapore: National University of Singapore, Asian MetaCentre Research Paper Series, 2006).


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