8 June 2010, 18:52
This sounds like a really interesting study. I'm a consultant, looking into humanitarian advocacy. Here are my thoughts about international media and disasters:
1. Distorting impact on agency responses
The presence of international media in disasters can undermine aid quality. Crudely, here's how it works: In high-profile disasters, aid agencies feel compelled to raise their organizational profiles and publicize their brand; this makes sense since big disasters can become funding bonanzas that compensate for lean periods. Such funding and publicity imperatives, promoted by increasingly powerful marketing departments within agencies, end up driving agencies away from applying good practices, learning, and accountability principles. Instead they drive a focus on high-visibility go-it-alone activities and quantifiable, tangible, visible achievements, like building say 100 houses in the capital. These trump more pressing but less glamorous requirements, like contributing to local government budgets for rebuilding a water and sanitation system in a remote village. Don't think specific studies exist, but ALNAP's Review of Humanitarian Action series in recent years http://www.alnap.org/initiatives/current/rha.aspx, and the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition study http://www.alnap.org/initiatives/tec.aspx repeatedly raise this theme.
2. Underreported but not forgotten?
Undeniably the CNN factor is still at play, as MSF's yearly list of top ten 'worst emergencies' http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/publications/topten/2009/ shows. (Interestingly, the list was called top 'underreported crises' until 2007). The point is, some disasters get all the media attention and prompt massive responses, while others are plainly ignored. However, this phenomenon may be overstated. An interesting discussion of emergencies hosted by the Danish Refugee Council (see http://www.alertnet.org/thefacts/reliefresources/544251.htm) challenged this view. As I remember, a conclusion was that many emergencies had been ignored by the global media, but followed by 'stakeholders' like humanitarian agencies and donors, and as a result, did not lack specialized international attention and funding.
3. Misunderstanding the media
Media and humanitarians are compelled to work together in disasters, and at best have a symbiotic relationship. However, their agendas and professional cultures often clash. Aid agencies seem to expect - even demand - that media cover 'their stories'. Agencies too often promote their stories in poorly conceived ways, acting beyond their competencies as DIY spin-doctors, enlisting inappropriate get-in-the-way celebrities, and ignore the specific needs of journalists. Consultant Samantha Bolton talks well on this, and gave an excellent presentation at HAP several years ago on it. Meanwhile, much international coverage relies on tired meta-narratives around an heroic aid worker, suffering masses, and a disaster-prone Third World. Recently, a new meta-story may have emerged - that of the ineffective and poorly coordinated aid response; in Haiti, that quickly became the main story.
4. The rise of humanitarian media
A bunch of specialized media outlets are now specifically humanitarian and disaster-focused. AlertNet, ReliefWeb, IRIN and professional publications like Humanitarian Exchange and Forced Migration Review have risen along with professionalization of the humanitarian sector, media interest in disasters, and increased disaster budgets. This is important to look at, since humanitarian media caters to humanitarian and political actors, and may therefore be more important than other outlets in affecting the international response. Maybe not.
5. New media's potential
As traditional journalism withers and international news is slashed, new media in disasters is growing in importance. The foreign correspondent is being replaced by many self-appointed correspondents, 'bare-foot journalists,' and simple observers, from within the affected population. Internet access allowing, affected populations can use handheld devices to record and transmit live events, through tweet messages, videos and photos, and analytical blog entries. All this happens in real time and all but removes the barrier of distance. The challenge here is for somebody (journalists, humanitarians, political actors?) to process and make sense of it all. Here's an interesting article on the role of new media, about the Ushahidi Web Platform: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/weekinreview/14giridharadas.html?scp=10&sq=Humanitarianism%202.0&st=cse
6. The Haiti earthquake
Media coverage of the Haiti earthquake earlier this year was much discussed, and here are a few interesting analyses:
-An excellent tongue-in-cheek look at media coverage (skip first 1min into vid): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cNsxTfyVEo
-Too many journalists
-Importance of local media
-Medical correspondents (also acting as doctors?)
Good luck with it,