Back to Magazine


Seeds of understanding


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.

According to 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 improvement.

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 Cross.

“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?— 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 long-term solutions.

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:

“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.”






Contact Us