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MUCH is said these days about the so-called “CNN effect” – the fact that only when the media are on the spot does the disaster become a reality for the rest of the world.

We in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement know better. We work in many places where there is no sign of a journalist and the disaster is always real. Perhaps these conflicts and crises are just not sexy enough for the press. Maybe they are too dangerous to cover. Or maybe they have just been there for too long to be interesting any more.

Many people in the Movement are not happy about this. They try to use the media – on their own terms – and are often disappointed with the results. So, very often we meet the press with prejudice or even aggression. We feel that we are the good guys, doing the good deeds, and they are the bad guys, hoping for as much death and destruction as possible in order to get the stories that sell...

As a journalist and foreign correspondent for Danish television before joining the Red Cross, I myself have covered many disasters – wars, famine, floods, earthquakes – the lot. And I remember very well the feeling: being there on the spot, filming the victims, getting what we came for – the story, the pictures. Then, when the job was done, we’d pack up our things and go home to our comfortable lives.

It always made me feel better that the Red Cross did not leave like we newspeople did. At least somebody was staying to take care of those in need. And I know that most journalists feel the same way. Journalists have hearts, too.
As a Movement whose work is both vital and relevant in today’s world, we need to catch up with the times. We must open up to the media in an honest and cooperative way, respect their role and their working terms. We should understand that showing the suffering is another way of helping those who suffer. And we must realise that we cannot, and should not, define in what way the stories are told.

Of course there are things that we cannot tell. But there are a lot of others that we can. We are doing a great job and it should not be kept secret. We have to accept that journalists must be critical of us – as they are of anything else. We must welcome their criticism and educate ourselves and the public to understand that even the Red Cross is not faultless. We are sensitive and vulnerable to criticism. But we are even more vulnerable to silence.

Jørgen Poulsen
Secretary General, Danish Red Cross

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