The Humanitarian Journalism project is seeking to better understand how the news media report on humanitarian crises and what shapes their coverage.

The BBC World Service’s coverage of humanitarian crises

Max Slaughter

January 25, 2018


By Max Slaughter (@maxslaughter). Mainstream news organisations are regularly criticised for either under-reporting or completely omitting humanitarian crises from their coverage. Research recently published by Care International showed that 1/3 of people in need of aid in 2017 received only 2.5% of media coverage.

In order to investigate these criticisms further, we have been analysing how a range of news organisations covered humanitarian crises in 2017. One of our most recent studies involved a three-month content analysis (between May 2017 and July 2017) of the daily news bulletins and Newshour programme on the BBC World Service. Our findings were rather surprising.


Quantity of coverage

Overall, our results show that a significant proportion of the outputs of the BBC World Service do focus on humanitarian issues. This includes nearly one in five (19%) items on the news bulletins and 14% of reports on the more in-depth Newshour programmes.

News items qualified as ‘humanitarian’ either when: (1) the country being reported on was the subject of a UN OCHA humanitarian appeal, (2) the focus was primarily on the aid industry or (3) the news item was explicitly framed in terms of a ‘crisis’ involving human suffering. Key events during this sample period included the devastating cholera outbreak in Yemen and the ongoing, complex crises in Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan.

Although the BBC World Service appears to report on humanitarian crises quite extensively, there are limits in its geographic breadth and the diversity of sources it cites.


Geographic and thematic focus

The Middle East received by far the most humanitarian news coverage on the BBC World Service, within our sample period. It was the focus of 57% of humanitarian items on Newshour and 45% of those on the bulletins. Syria and Iraq received most humanitarian coverage within this region, with the former receiving 24% of all Newshour’s humanitarian coverage and the latter receiving 18%. This is perhaps expected, as the gruelling battle against Islamic State continued over this three-month period.

This focus on the Middle East also explains why over 80% of humanitarian news items in our sample focused on issues concerning conflict and violence (rather than natural disasters or the aid industry). Such coverage tended to take the form of traditional conflict reporting – where a journalist covers stories directly on the ground: reporting on civilian casualties and military tactics.

On one hand, this focus on conflict may signal that the BBC World Service’s coverage of humanitarian issues is not as broad as it could be. Many humanitarian crises – particularly outside of the Middle East – were not covered. On the other hand, the BBC World Service may in fact be more accurately reflecting a changing humanitarian landscape. After all, it is claimed that conflicts are increasingly the cause of humanitarian crises in the twenty first century, rather than natural disasters.


Who Speaks?

Our results also show that almost half (45%) of those speaking in Newshour items, about humanitarian news, were local participants or affected populations, such as refugees. The BBC World Service’s focus on the voices of local people is consistent with our findings for almost all other mainstream news organisations. Paul Royall, Editor of BBC News at Six and Ten, has said that using voices of local people can connect humanitarian stories to UK audiences, by depicting human experiences and creating empathy.

However, Glenda Cooper – Lecturer in Journalism at City University – has pointed out that local people’s insights into the context of the crisis or possible ways of alleviating it may be limited. Indeed, we also found that local NGOs accounted for only 1% of sources in the BBC World Service’s Newshour programme. Local NGOs can offer important viewpoints that provide a focus on actions being taken to deal with crises.


Looking Ahead

With the world facing a whole host of humanitarian crises, including the worst since 1945, it is more important than ever for news organisations to cover humanitarian issues. The BBC World Service is proving that mainstream news organisation can achieve this.

That being said, news organisations face a serious challenge in producing well-researched, fact-based journalism, whilst also meeting the immediate needs of audiences in an era of 24/7 news. In times of humanitarian crises, where awareness can lead to effective action, meeting this challenge is critical if the major tragedies of the world are to be combatted effectively.


Max Slaughter has been assisting with the Humanitarian Journalism research project over the past year. He has an MA in Media and International Development and a BA (Hons) in International Relations and Politics. Find him on Twitter @MaxSlaughter.  


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