March 24, 2005

Do the Media

Writing about web page

War in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country two-thirds the size of Western Europe, has claimed at least 10 times as many lives as the December tsunami yet remains almost unheard of outside of Africa, key players in the aid world said.*
Gilligan said the main reason the tsunami got huge coverage while war in Sudan has faded from the front pages was it was new, wiping out lives from one minute to the next.
There is a consensus in the media industry that the tsunami was covered better than any previous disaster.

The Tsunami on boxing day was a terrifying thing. Numbers of people beyond imagining died very suddenly, with little or no warning. It was, without doubt, an absolute tragedy for anyone remotely involved.

And the response, it is widely reported, was stunning. I got at least 2 or 3 emails from Oxfam saying 'You've been incredible', and for the first time I've ever heard of, they closed the donations, and said they had enough. That is a great example of generosity when it was desperately needed, and it will undoubtedly make an incredible difference to the survivors of the tsunami.

Nothing new there for anyone. The questions I'm asking though start with this – why, when so many disasters pass by almost unnoticed, did the tsunami get such huge coverage?

Possibly it was the suddenness of it. Early figures were in the thousands, though anyone actually looking at where the numbers were coming in from must have been able to see very quickly what kind of increase was likely. The media knew that thousands, almost definitely hundreds of thousands, were dead – and it had happened almost unbelievably quickly. For those who had friends and family in the affected zones, it must have been a nightmarishly fast transition from 'they're on holiday – probably sunning themselves on the beach, lucky..' to 'are they even alive!?'

That also is a possible reason – the papers here could print fairly quickly lists of names and photographs (including Steve Pretty, old Sab) in one paper of 'missing Brits'. A huge area was covered, including a large number of popular holiday destinations, and the number of people in Britain with some kind of connection to someone out there must have heightened interest.

That's almost definitely not a complete list, but I'll leave it there and go on to my next question – How did the media coverage affect the public response?
Having never read a study on this, I should admit at this point I'm making assumptions based on general reading and common sense. But I'd be incredibly surprised if the media coverage didn't have a large effect on the donations received. Graphic pictures of destroyed towns, orphaned children and desperately searching relatives aroused compassion, and that got people reaching for their pockets.

In the period leading up to Boxing day, a huge amount of fuss was gathering steam over 'the worlds largest humanitarian crisis' in Darfur. I found how the media behaved with that situation really interesting, and also quite confusing – before Darfur hit the headlines, the vast majority if not all of the information in the articles had already appeared in the same newspapers, just tucked away in the 'international news' section somewhere in the hinterlands of the middle pages.

And it's now disappeared again. Quoting from a Reuters article*;

"Darfur has slipped from the front pages, but the situation there is again going from terrible to being absolutely horrendous," U.N. relief coordinator Jan Egeland said.

It can be seen that the situation there is only getting worse, and this can't be helped by the lack of attention that so benefited the people of the Tsunami zones. And as the quote at the top of this entry shows, Darfur is not the largest example.

The article I've linked to brushes on this. It seems to make what sounds like an extremely sensible point – that charities who want media coverage in order to help generate donations need to invest donations in training people in their press departments to help the journalists get stories that will make it to the front page.

That's obviously a good start. It does put all the onus on the charities -which, to some extent, seems fair enough, as they're the ones wanting the cash. My next question, however, is this; given the impact of media attention on donations aid work and the huge necessity of such donations to the lives of the millions of people helped by aid, should the media not acknowledge a responsibility to very deliberately use its influence to increase and direct donations as necessary?

And it is not just aid that can be helpful. Just as the Make Poverty History campaign is not actually asking people to donate, but to campaign, and not so long ago the main political opposition was described, at best half jokingly, as the Daily Mail, pressure Can be put on the government of our and any other democratic country to act in whatever situation the electorate, and their 'representatives and guides', the media, choose.
That this works is demonstrated by the relatively recent end to the civil war in the south of Sudan between the SPLA and the Government was reported to be largely due to international pressure on both sides, and if the agreement made is to be kept to the indications are that further pressure will be required.

That this would have to be done in partnership with well trained staff in NGO's** I don't doubt – but the attitude that seems to be present at the moment, that of 'We go where there's a story, so if you give us a story somewhere there we'll go' seems incredibly irresponsible given the power that could be wielded for good. Instead of saying to the NGO's 'Give us a story', newspapers and other agencies could work with the NGO's to help them find stories that would help – After all news agencies don't normally have news handed to them on a plate.

One problem I can certainly appreciate is that the appetite for receiving donations is without doubt larger than the appetite for giving them. That there is just not enough space in the newspapers for all the disasters that would be worthy of mention. But that not all people could be helped is not a reason to help none.

Imagine, for a minute, an educated electorate, not just in the UK, but in Europe, Australia, and the US. In the news right now is the fact that the President of the USA and congress passed some very speedy legislation to allow intervention in a standard legal process – and not a few commentators put this down to pressure from the people. If that electorate had instead been waving placards concerning the fate of millions rather than one, and were educated by the media enough to ask for sensible action to be taken…. imagine the impact that could have.

*Starred quotes from Reuters article: link, "Congo war tops AlertNet poll of 'forgotten' crises", all others from linked article, also from Reuters, "DEBATE-Has tsunami carved a news niche for disasters?"

**Non Governmental Organisations, e.g. Charities like Oxfam.

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