An initiative led by the British Red Cross seeks to sow understanding among a
public hungry for in-depth news
When it comes to getting the word out about natural or man-made
disasters, humanitarian aid agencies and media professionals
aren’t always on the same page.
To humanitarians, media coverage often seems sensational
or superficial. News outlets often don’t provide stories
that show the complex, root causes and that might help political
leaders and the public grasp the solutions.
The media, meanwhile, sometimes see aid organizations as
self-serving — using simplistic emotional appeals to
raise funds or boost their own image while shying away from
accountability or debate.
To help bridge that gap, the British Red Cross (BRC) has
led a project since 2006 called Dispatches from Disaster
Zones, which has brought media and humanitarian professionals
together to discuss how to better inform the public about
complex humanitarian emergencies.
One recent result of that effort was study commissioned
by the BRC. The results, released in October 2011, came as
news to many in the media and humanitarian sector. The British
public is in fact quite hungry for more in-depth information
and they don't feel particularly well fed by the traditional
news media. Indeed, only four per cent of Britons feel
they are “very well informed” about emergency
aid issues, and almost three in four said they are in fact “not
well informed,” according to the survey.
the researchers, people have a particular appetite for more
understanding about complex emergencies and in particular
about why certain disasters, such as food insecurity in the
Horn of Africa, continue year after year without apparent
Conducted by a private research company, the
survey was complimented by focus groups consisting of media
professionals and aid workers. “The journalist were
generally of the view that the public wasn’t interested
in underlying causes — they
were more interested in the drama of a particular incident,” says
Adrian Thomas, communications director for the British Red
“But at the time, the Horn of Africa crisis was
very current and what the public had told us through the
survey was that they were in fact very interested in more
background information about why this was happening. They
also said they want more information about how the international
aid system works.”
The discussion came at a time when many people in Great
Britain were asking serious questions about the role of British
media, under intense scrutiny due to the now infamous scandal
in which several journalists stand accused of illegally eavesdropping
on the private voicemails of people in the news.
At the same time, other media watchdog groups are also adding
to the discussion about how the media covers humanitarian
relief. In December 2011, the International Broadcasting
Trust, a UK-based NGO of which the British Red Cross is a
member, issued a report on The East African famine — did
the media get it right? http://www.ibt.org.uk/— that challenged the way both media and humanitarian workers
handled the Horn of Africa crisis.
“Media coverage of the crisis in East Africa was sometimes
criticised for its slow response, [it’s use of] tabloid
press imagery reminiscent of the mid 1980s, parachute journalism
and a tendency to focus on the Dadaab refugee camp and ignore
the wider context,” according to the report.
“Other NGO interviewees felt that it was difficult
to criticise the media for superficial coverage when their
own messages were often too simplistic and failed to address
the limitations of humanitarian aid in the face of the violence
and political chaos in Somalia,” the report continued.
Beyond the headlines
What to do about these gaps? For the BRC, the answer lies
in both continued engagement with traditional media, while
also appealing directly to people’s thirst for knowledge
through social media.
One case in point was the Seeds of Change programme, launched
in September 2011 as a way to speak directly to constituents
via social media about the causes of cyclical drought and
hunger and the challenges and possibilities for creating
The most visible result was a 3-minute video, “Food
insecurity, how it happens and what you can do about it, ” that
explained, in simple yet colourful terms, the various reinforcing
causes of food insecurity. (Please see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79UGlB1IRh4).
“That video went viral and been downloaded across
the world, essentially telling people that it’s not
simply that crops fail and people go hungry,” said
Thomas. “It’s not a singular cause that media
tends to report, but a series of complex, interlinked issues
and structures that therefore link into the crisis. And that
we were also looking at solutions and at how to build up
the resilience of communities and food systems.”
The power of viral social media is that people who view
and then share such videos are not generally as passive as
TV watchers. Rather they are often part of a community or
network of people who are motivated by curiosity or compassion,
not just hoping to sell newspapers or boost TV advertising
revenue. Also, it allows people in the field to communicate
directly with interested readers, without a middleman. “That
kind of communication from the field, right through to people
in France or the UK, is very powerful,” he said.
Dispatches on the home front
Following up on its experience with Dispatches from Disaster
Zones, the BRC is now looking at media coverage closer
to home, exploring ways vulnerable people on British soil
are represented in the media.
“We have traditionally focused on international aid
emergency response issues but for the first time we are looking
at domestic issues and in particular, media stigmatization
of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Thomas. To that
end, the British Red Cross has now commissioned a new study
to see how media reporting on refugees and asylum seekers
impact their everyday lives.
“Along side that, we are also running a series of
workshops for citizen journalists, getting their views and
helping the beneficiaries themselves tell their stories to
the world,” he said. “We are going to try to
get those stories out through social media as a way to help
the British public understand the bigger picture when it
comes to those who are seeking asylum or protection.”