Why Don’t Human Disasters Get More Coverage?

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By: Sonya Moore

A new survey from Columbia University in New York reveals reasons — and possible solutions — for a lack of wide news coverage of humanitarian emergencies.

The study’s results suggest that lack of resources, rather than reporter ignorance, was more to blame for the sparse coverage.

“Conventional wisdom is that reporters, editors and columnists do not know enough about crises, especially chronic crises such as AIDS in Africa, or strife or natural disasters in countries of no immediate interest to the American public,” said Steven S. Ross, Columbia University’s associate professor of journalism who was in charge of the study. “However, our survey shows that journalists are actually fairly well-informed, so money spent training journalists in that regard might be wasted.”

The study, “Toward New Understandings: Journalists & Humanitarian Relief Coverage,” was commissioned by not-for-profit Reuters AlertNet and the Fritz Institute. Researchers interviewed 54 humanitarian relief organization officials, located mainly in international headquarters and regional hubs worldwide with 47% from Europe, 20% from Asia and 11% from North America. More than 1,000 reporters’ bylines from around the world were collected and an invitation to participate was e-mailed out, resulting in 290 responses.

Lack of funding for reporting — especially from the field where aid is administered — was cited as the biggest problem in coverage, mentioned by 55% of North American journalists and 71% of foreign journalists. Another reason for the low priority given by news organizations was the lack of public relations skills among non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Many times local nationals inexperienced in Western-style PR work in the field offices. An apparent lack of coordination among NGOs and their Web sites, which lacked pertinent information, frustrated journalists.

The researchers offered a few recommendations for supporting journalists through training and travel, and also suggested promotion of existing information sources like AlertNet and ReliefWeb. “Media coverage is a vital tool for relief charities in garnering public support and funding,” said Anisya Thomas, Ph.D., managing director of Fritz Institute. “Fritz Institute and Reuters AlertNet conducted this study to help the humanitarian relief community build its capacity to engage the media.”

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