Attention Deficit

The media and relief organisations depend on one another in various ways. Their cooperation, however, involves risks which, if ignored, erode the credibility of both aid workers and journalists. Uli Post has some recommendations

Child eartquake victim in Kashmir (photo: AP)
Child eartquake victim in Kashmir. Relief agencies are under pressure to spend donations as fast as possible. "Unfortunately, the temptation to carry out nonsensical, expensive projects is great", writes Uli Post

​​More than any disaster did before, the tsunami last Christmas left its mark both on relief agencies and the media. As the German daily Die Welt wrote, it was "one of the most visually documented natural disasters in media history". In such events, the cooperation between the media and the relief organisations can benefit both parties, but it is not without its problems.

No TV, no catastrophe

A major disaster somewhere in the world is not automatically perceived as such in affluent countries. For that to happen, certain criteria have to be met.

  • Disasters need an adequate backdrop. For example, the media can "market" a famine in chronically-impoverished Ethiopia more effectively than one in Burundi or Eritrea. Ethiopia is the epitome of poverty and starvation, whereas neighbouring Eritrea and tiny Burundi have no chance of attracting media attention.
  • Disasters have to be seen to be believed. Television is the dominant media, and it strongly influences reporting by other media. When images of starving people are shown on TV, then there must be a disaster – even if only a single location is ever shown. In a news interview on German TV some months ago, Germany's Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul was repeatedly accused of not doing enough for Niger. Her explanation was not well received by the interviewer: after all, hadn't we all just seen the pictures of the poor and needy?
  • Disasters should not happen too often. The more frequently major disasters occur, the more difficult it is to attract interest in an individual event. This was the case in 2005 for hurricanes and – at least initially – the earthquake in Pakistan.
  • Disasters and their after-effects should be of short duration and should not become a structural crisis, which will soon be forgotten by the media. Television in particular suffers from a short attention span.
  • Greater interest is attracted when people relate personally to a disaster. After the tsunami many people in rich countries thought to themselves: "This could have happened to me or my friends."
  • The number of victims plays a role, but not a critical one. The flooding in Mozambique in 2000 claimed comparatively few lives, but the media portrayed it as a major catastrophe. The same happened with Niger last summer, although the reverse was true for the recent earthquake in Pakistan. Only when it became apparent that many, many lives had been lost did reporters from other countries begin to show up. Pakistan was not their setting of choice.
  • Other events should not occur at the same time. Major incidents at home, in particular, soon divert attention from the need in other parts of the world.

Interdependent actors

Journalists reporting on disasters or everyday trends in Third World countries rely on relief agencies in many ways. For instance, they make use of aid logistics in order to reach inaccessible places. Similarly, they need the relief workers as sources of information. By cooperating with relief organisations, the media can bathe in the reflected glory of these agencies' humanitarian commitment.

The relief organisations, in turn, also need the media. First of all, journalists draw attention to humanitarian concerns. Only because the media reported genocidal crimes and the consequent suffering in the Darfur region of Sudan, did the world learn of this tragedy.

Second, the media can put pressure on decision-makers at home and abroad to increase aid, perhaps, or to improve the working conditions of the relief organisations. Subsequently, private and institutional donors want to know what becomes of the money they contribute. Third, therefore, media reporting plays the important role of unofficially auditing relief organisations.

"Get rid of these journalists"

Fourth, people tend to make charitable donations when disasters occur. In Germany, however, the total sum of donations hardly ever changes. An agency can only expand its share by taking away from other organisations. It is impossible to do so without media attention. Nonetheless, cooperation with the media can also have downsides. "Get rid of these journalists," complained relief workers during the floods in Mozambique. "We can't get on with our work anymore."

Many media companies have lately suffered from serious financial difficulties. They are now employing fewer reporters than before. At the same time, competition among relief organisations has grown. Resulting from both trends, new forms of cooperation have emerged. Press and broadcasting institutions increasingly resort to "all inclusive" reporting from relief organisations, leaving little room for objective journalistic comment.

The same is true when the media switch from observing to intervening actively. A positive scenario is when they raise funds for aid agencies. A less positive scenario is when they raise funds to carry out their own relief projects. And it is definitely not helpful when news anchors become engaged with relief organisations as volunteers and then run reports of their involvement in their broadcast programmes.

On the other hand, it is perfectly ethical for journalists to cooperate with aid agencies during disaster situations – or on other issues which involve suffering and exploitation – as long as they remain clear about their role. They need the courage to call a disaster a disaster, even if it fails to comply with the media criteria set out above. The relief organisations, of course, must also respect the autonomy of journalists.

Media influencing the relief activities

Even when the media do not play a specific role, there is still the risk of them wanting to influence the relief activities – at least in part. Normally, they are committed to the priorities set by their readers or viewers.

Naturally, they have a tendency to go to those places they find easily accessible. The needs of the media-makers and their audience, however, do not necessarily coincide with those of any given disaster's victims. As a result of strong pressure from the media, relief organisations could have built many more schools and nursery schools than were actually needed in the tsunami-affected areas. Nobody, however, showed interest in funding equally important sewage pipes.

Because media attention is so important, relief organisations sometimes exaggerate reports or stage activities. Hence the reports of an alleged outbreak of cholera in Sri Lanka shortly after the tsunami, or, at another occasion, the remarkably realistic photos of refugees off the coast of Sicily. Compared to such events, the repeated sin of inflating the numbers of starving people or refugees is hardly noticed.

The pressure to spend donations fast

Soon after the tsunami the German President, the Chancellor and the responsible Minister all emphasised that the extent of the disaster meant relief and reconstruction efforts would inevitably be long-term. However, only four weeks later Spiegel magazine published the first table showing details of how much each agency had spent so far.

Since the Live Aid concerts 20 years ago, relief agencies have become all too familiar with the pressure to spend donations as fast as possible. Unfortunately, the temptation to carry out nonsensical, expensive projects or to hire additional, costly personnel is great. Such pressure hardly ensures that money is well spent.

Four lessons

In my opinion, there are at least four key lessons to be learned from the tsunami and other disasters:

  • The relief agencies must do something to raise the level of expertise of journalists and the quality of reporting. The media must take note (and convey to the public), that relief contributions by the local population are crucial, that quality matters more than speed, that it is vital to understand the socio-political context of a crisis, and that a country's structural deficits can aggravate crises. The Association of German Development Non-Government Organisations (VENRO) or the German Journalists' Association could become involved in raising awareness of these issues.
  • If a single relief agency works less than professionally, this reflects badly on all the others. Reputable, effective organisations should agree on a code of conduct, which would distinguish reliable from unreliable organisations. They could define a common logo, which would only be used by those agencies committed to the code of conduct.

    In view of the chaos of the post-tsunami weeks, an organisation's willingness to coordinate its activities with local groups in the disaster-struck country is just as important as its commitment to the general principles and standards of humanitarian aid. The logo could also stand for involving the local population and partner organisations in planning and decision-making. Due consideration should also be given to project sustainability and to any potential conflict which aid may engender. Last but not least, accountability mechanisms should also be taken into account.

  • There is widespread and increasing unease about the lack of coordination between relief organisations in the field. It is up to the agencies to counter concerns by demonstrating practical examples of successful cooperation. However, such coordination can only function based on a consensus on standards.
  • Relief organisations which raise funds must – in the event of disasters – devote ever more time and effort to attracting donations. The growing competition does not go down well with donors, viewers or readers – and still less with broadcasters and editors.

Therefore, I would like to see more coordination between relief organisations here at home too. The alliances agencies have formed so far to improve disaster response are a good start, but they do not go far enough yet.

Uli Post

© Development and Cooperation 2006

Uli Post works for Deutsche Welthungerhilfe/German Agro Action. In the aftermath of last year's tsunami, this organisation teamed up with four other relief agencies and founded the alliance Together for People in Need – Development Works. The alliance pledges to meet fundamental quality criteria.

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