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close this bookThe Courier N° 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid - Country Reports: Soa Tomé- Principe- Senegal (EC Courier, 1992, 96 p.)
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Journalists and humanitarian emergencies

The media's job is to tell the full story, not to solve the problems by Mia DOORNAERT *

The first indication most ordinary people get that there is a humanitarian crisis somewhere in the world is when they hear about it on radio or television or see it in the newspaper. Worldwide satellite telecommunications and shortwave radio have brought home to people and their governments the seriousness and scale of the humanitarian emergencies affecting many parts of the world, and made them give thought to whether, and how, they should respond. This confers a heavy responsibility on the journalists reporting such stories. What part should they be playing?

Some years ago a United Nations official who was deeply involved in humanitarian relief work and cared passionately about it told me she thought journalists were 'terrible' people. Her main reproach was what she saw as 'the short, narrow attention span' of the press and media, the fact that 'they are only capable of being interested in one humanitarian problem at a time'. In the meantime, she said, 'the international aid and relief agencies have to find the resources to cope with a large number of refugee problems and disasters at the same time, and to do that we need the help of the media.'

Her understandable complaint, which was mainly directed at the worldwide or transnational media, raises a number of questions, one of which is the conflicting demands made upon the media. If they focus too heavily on what is 'pews', they are accused of being superficial or callous. If, on the other hand, there is an avalanche of disaster stories, many people worry that the effect on public opinion might be one of 'compassion fatigue' and a feeling of helplessness in the face of what seem recurring and insoluble problems.

Defining 'news'

A never-ending debate goes on between journalists and editors as to what constitutes 'news', and this is not the place to go into it. But it is true that a story does not become less of a 'news' item because it goes on for a long time. On the contrary, the longer a drought, famine or war lasts, the more severe the effects on the population will be in terms of economic hardship, deprivation, hunger and homelessness, and the more 'newsworthy' the story should be. Even if the public have a greater tendency than journalists to become 'accustomed' to even the worst horror stories, and even if editors take that into account, with an eye to the ratings or circulation figures, I do believe that journalists with the requisite knowledge, insight and talent will be able to convince their editors that the story is still worth telling, and will be able to make governments and the public sit up and take notice.

But it would be wrong to blame the media for the reaction - or lack of it - to emergencies from public opinion or governments. The task of journalists is to get the facts out and analyse them to the best of their ability. Neither the individual journalist nor the press and media as a whole have control over how the public react to their stories.

Getting the story

Getting as complete an account of the facts as possible is essential, even if it makes some people unhappy. To look at the dramatic famine situation in Somalia, there have been a number of stories on the callousness with which the war lords in that country carry on their squabbles and plunder relief convoys, while every day a thousand of their compatriots die because the relief supplies fail to reach them. There has been criticism to the effect that stories of this kind are not 'helpful', as they might discourage the public in the richer countries from providing more aid for Somalia.

I disagree: it is not the task of journalists to second-guess what the reaction to their reports will be; their job is to get the full story out.

Finding remedies

What makes this especially important is that many disasters, refugee problems and so on are not inevitable, they are the result of human short-sightedness and human error, and it is important that this should be shown and explained. War correspondents, for instance, cannot limit their coverage of a civil war to listing how many rockets fall on Kabul or Sarajevo on a given day and how many deaths they cause. It is just as vital to report all the other humanitarian consequences, including the plight of the refugees thrown onto the streets. This is important because it is an integral part of the story and should therefore be told, and also because it might be the best way to prevent 'compassion fatigue'. If it is shown that a great many disasters are man-made, then it follows that remedies can be found by devising more sensible policies, and that there is no need to feel helpless, since something can be done to remedy the problem and prevent it from happening again.

The same applies to some natural disasters. The great Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun, one of the greatest historians of all times, wrote as early as the 14th century that many problems ascribed to nature, like the loss of arable land to the desert in Africa, were in fact man-made and due to man's failure to understand the intricacies of what was not yet, at the time, called the ecological system.


Even in the case of an Act of God like a drought, a hurricane or a flood, the effects on the population can be mitigated by timely warning or action. Crop failure, for instance, can be predicted and, if action is taken in time, governments and the international community can at least prevent it leading to famine.

For this to happen, it is important that the story should be told, and that the local press and media are able to play their part by reporting the facts and taking part in the debate about what should be done. It is not enough just to look at what is being put out by the major international media, because by the time they start reporting the consequences of crop failure in a particular country, it is already in a sense too late, meaning that those consequences will already have become so dire and dramatic that they 'deserve' world attention.

The importance of the work of local media and the press cannot be overestimated. It has been shown that in countries where extensive or comparative press freedom exists, like India or Kenya, famine as a result of crop failure has been prevented by timely warnings and action. In Ethiopia, on the other hand, millions of people suffered horribly because successive regimes, from misplaced nationalistic or ideological pride, would not admit in time that there was a problem, and refused to tolerate public debate about possible remedies.


This emphasis on the vital role of the local press and media raises, of course, the question of the political nature of the regime in countries confronted with humanitarian problems or disasters. Underlining this link has nothing to do with arrogance or 'wanting to impose Western structures'. If it can be demonstrated that millions of innocent men, women and children suffer and die because the lack of openness and transparency in the political structure of their country has prevented their being helped in time, then that is certainly an essential part of the story and it should be reported.

In humanitarian questions, as in others, problems can only be solved when they are known about and understood. In this, the task of the press and media is to help get the facts out and make sure they are understood. They cannot be blamed if, in doing so, they tread on sensitive political toes, or if the reaction of the international community is judged to be too slow or insufficient. To come back to the complaint of my friend at the United Nations, even if the press and media cannot carry daily reports on the all too many humanitarian problems the world faces, once the international community has been alerted to a problem it is also the task - and the duty - of governments, parliaments and international institutions to take action and to keep that action going. The media can be blamed if they do not do a good job of reporting on humanitarian problems, but they cannot be blamed for not solving them.