Brothers' Keepers? Media and Forgotten Disasters - February, 2008

Global Hand began this year by attending the International Aid and Trade event in Geneva. Sally Begbie spoke at the meeting on Media and Forgotten Disasters.

All of us are aware of the struggle between the humanitarian and media sectors concerning forgotten disasters: those crises which quickly lose ‘popular’ appeal. The phrase ‘Follow the cameras’ aptly describes global response to crises. When disaster strikes and is under the media spotlight, international focus channels assistance. Typically, though, it is newsworthy for only a brief time.

Once the focus of the cameras is turned elsewhere, resources reduce. Yet, for the impacted population, recovery can take months, years or even decades. This has given rise to the term ‘forgotten or neglected disasters’. Considerable work has been undertaken to track the connection between resources and popular or unpopular disasters.

The extraordinary nature of the year 2005 highlighted these patterns in such a way that they became readily measurable. While the extremes of that year will not, hopefully, be repeated for a long time to come, the principles driving the response did become noteworthy. A Red Cross report afterward graphed the percentage of aid needed and provided. It indicated that the tsunami, which had massive media coverage, saw impacted areas receive almost five times the amount of financial support as that needed: 475% to be precise. The South Asia (Pakistan) Earthquake of the same year, also with substantial media interest, saw double the requested funds come in. On the other end of the scale, locations such as Djibouti or Central African Republic, with almost no media coverage, received a fraction of what was needed.


Another Red Cross chart tracked not the percentage of aid needed and received, but, literally, dollar aid given per beneficiary. It showed that the tsunami saw US$1,200 per head while Malawi and Chad, examples of forgotten disasters, received approx US$30 per head.


In 2006, the Red Cross World Disasters Report focused on forgotten disasters. A salient quote from that publication asked“Which people are missing out on humanitarian aid because no journalists report on them, no donors are interested in them, no agencies have assessed their needs, or because their governments ignore them? Despite the rhetoric on good donorship and the mushrooming of the international aid reform industry, millions remain consigned to the shadows of unfashionable crises and disasters. For them, every day is a lottery to live or die.”

In response to the forgotten disaster syndrome, several groups have developed a place in the space supporting forgotten disasters. The Reuters group, AlertNet, offers a full suite of tools to help address the issue. One of the tools they offer is a tracker , which gives a dynamically generated graph measuring the volume of press coverage received by different disasters at any one time. A user can select the disasters to be examined and the time frame of interest, and generate a precise graph to measure coverage. Illustrated here is the AlertNet press tracker showing news articles during January 2007, with Iraq and Afghan news clearly dominating.


Another view of the AlertNet press tracker shows that the media coverage given in the first six weeks following the tsunami exceeded the total for the world’s top ten forgotten disasters in the previous year.


The chart for 2007 shows the dominance of Iraq and Afghan news against forgotten disasters.


Another graph, in the CARMA International report on media coverage of humanitarian disasters , tracks the numbers of deaths and the ways in which they are aligned and non-aligned. One example on the right tracks Hurricanes Katrina and Stan.


A media and humanitarian survey , looking at the issue of forgotten disasters, was undertaken by the Fritz Institute and Reuters AlertNet , seeking to understand this pattern and ways round it. VAMU undertook research as well, looking at the problem and ideas for humanitarians to lift their game.

Certain websites also bring rich resources to the space:

  • MSF produces an annual‘forgotten disasters’list , based on press citation research.
  • IRIN regularly produces material, including video clips and articles on forgotten disasters.
  • ReliefWeb has a wide range of information sources on the gamut of disaster activity. It equips reporting in considerable detail and specificity.
  • ECHO has developed a methodology for identifying forgotten crises, called the forgotten disaster index.
  • IBT (International Broadcasting Trust) addresses the issue on behalf of its charity coalition, including: Amnesty International, British Red Cross, CAFOD, Care UK, Christian Aid, Comic Relief, Concern UK, Friends of the Earth, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund, UNICEF UK, VSO.

There are, then, very valuable tools in this space; excellent provision for any who care to do something about forgotten disasters. The challenge is, however, that nobody has to use them. Nobody in facthasto do anything. So one of the questions being asked today is whether it is time for us all to take a different step, a further measure, to guard against millions being forgotten. The real disaster, they say, is to forget fellow human beings and leave them to suffer unnoticed and unheard.

The case for forgotten disasters can be argued two ways.
    Fundamental to the debate is the issue of editorial independence. Nobody wants to hint at any infringement of this and, it can validly be argued, calling upon the media to report on forgotten disasters could constitute a violation. The counter-argument suggests that there is a moral imperative at work here and that even editorial independence should not operate in a moral vacuum when millions of lives are at stake.
    There is, certainly, a rather odd peculiarity to the hierarchy of disaster coverage, governed by a set of somewhat arbitrary factors with no ‘obvious’ pattern. One position asks: Should the process be less random? Do we owe our fellow human beings a measure of accountability? The counter argument says there is no appropriate strategy for setting a hierarchy in place.
    Is forgotten disaster coverage all doom and gloom, asks one position? While humanitarians may clamour for more of these scenarios to be covered by the media, do they realise that audiences are not willing to sink into an abyss of misery and despair. They will, literally, switch off. The counter position says that disaster coverage need not be caricatured as doom and gloom; there is compelling material to be found in disaster and post-disaster environments which is strong enough to hold audience interest, if rightly handled. The stories are there, it argues, and are worth telling. The humanitarian simply needs to be better trained and more proactive about making this material available.
    The issue of humanitarian media activity, however, raises further questions. Much of the research on this topic indicates that humanitarian organisations often lack a serious, developed media strategy. Further, press material, even press releases, lack editorial weight. Worse, the humanitarian press release is often little more than a fund-raising tool, thinly disguised and, in order to solicit funds, paints a further picture of doom and gloom. The counter argument here says that while humanitarians do not need to duplicate the job of journalists, they do need to lift their game if they wish to attract media interest in forgotten disasters.
    This phenomenon has always been with us, though the star power of those associated with it has perhaps strengthened in recent times. Some voices oppose it, complaining that the luminaries present a shallow understanding of a scenario which should be handled in a nuanced way and that they run the risk of subjectivity, even distortion, of the situation. The counter to this, expressed by some, is that, even given all of the above, the bottom line is that celebrity involvement puts the forgotten disaster back on the global radar. It brings that press interest which, in turn, brings the support.
    It is not uncommon for journalists to be motivated, personally, to do a story on a particular forgotten disaster they have encountered. The difficulty they voice is that their hands are tied on such choices, as these are made by those with editorial responsibility. They can do nothing if they do not get sign-off that permits budget for the story, releases the crew for travel and, ultimately, allows the piece to be put before the public eye. The counter argument being voiced is that if a new level of accountability is set in place, and subscribed to by the powers that be, those making the editorial policies will actually have to release budget and personnel to this end.
    One solution emerging from various conferences was the idea of a humanitarian fund to cover the costs of press coverage so that the above need not be the sticking issue. The counter argument was that the very act of providing money for journalistic endeavour could be a moral compromise, per se.
    So the debate continues. One position says that little more can actually be done to change the situation. Regrettable as it is, for all the reasons given, this really is as good as it gets. There is no disagreement over the fact that it is unfortunate for millions to battle life and death. The question is whether it’s more than unfortunate; whether, in fact, it is wrong. Is coverage of these people a ‘nice to have’ in our world today, or is it a necessity? Do we owe these people, as fellow human beings, the right to be seen and heard? Are we our brothers’ keepers, as the saying goes? Or do we not owe them anything? So the first question is whether it is okay or not for this to be happening. If not, the second question is how we raise the bar and see a better result than we see today among those who suffer.

In this context, some voice the power of the Fourth Estate: referencing the phrase spoken by Edmund Burke in the late 18th century and still used widely in the media today. Burke, back in his day, was addressing the British House of Commons. He gestured towards those who held the power of the day, clergy, gentry and others, who formed the Three Estates of power. But his hand lingered at the press gallery.“Yonder sits the Fourth Estate”, he said,“And they are more important than them all.”It is this point around which the debate is centred on the issue of forgotten disasters. Nobody wants additional rules in their lives, but some are asking whether a body with the power of the Fourth Estate should not have a measure of accountability in this context. That brings this discussion to the most radical suggestion being floated at the moment.

In today’s environment of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and global citizenship thinking, the suggestion is that the Fourth Estate and the Third Sector get together and, in the spirit of global citizenship, establish a charter against which both would be willing to be held accountable to, if you will, fellow man in his suffering. Knee-jerk responses abound of course.

Those against the idea speak of its potential intrusion upon the media’s need to satisfy stakeholders, keep ratings high and make a profit. Those for the idea see that argument as analogous to the manufacturing sector, 15 years ago, when it resisted requirements for environmental practice and supply chain management. They, similarly, talked of the need to make profit, keep stakeholders and shareholders happy, and basically told the rest of the world to leave them to do their job. In time, though, it came to be normal to expect their industries to be able to generate profit, but in a way that was globally responsible, from an environmental point of view. So, discussion says, can ways be found to meet stakeholder expectation and yet be globally responsible in regard to the millions currently unseen? What might this look like? In many other ways, companies, including media groups, are now submitting their reports each year–CSR, Global Citizenship or however they are termed–in which they demonstrate execution of their global responsibility. The suggestion is to align editorial responsibility with corporate responsibility in this context, much as other industries are now aligning their core competencies with broader global responsibilities. Is it a good idea? A bad idea? Would it never be accepted? Or is it long overdue? Without something like it, will we ever see a measure in place that will give us any grip on this situation?

Finally, a brief word about Global Hand explaining where we fit in this context. Global Hand is an online interface that brings for-profit and non-profit actors together through an online matching service.

We have standards of best practice under development in order to anchor such activity appropriately. It is in this context that the discussion of media and forgotten disasters has come up.

Most recently, we have been customising our software for usage by the United Nations where this issue has also often been in the spotlight. UN personnel are interested in joining a discussion of this type, if it has enough merit.

As well as the UN, we have been speaking to CNN, Reuters and the UK’s Media CSR Forum , which incorporates 22 groups in its stable.

So we finish with this question: Should there be an initial meeting of senior CSR and management players from major media companies, along with senior humanitarian actors from the United Nations and NGOs, and a serious attempt to discuss whether such a thing could be considered. If yes, is now the time? Has the moment come when standards and good practice should address the tragedy of forgotten disasters in a new way, one that will raise the bar higher than it has been before and hold us all accountable?

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