Is humanitarian journalism in crisis?

Martin Scott

October 29, 2016



C4 News - AleppoIn many ways, 2016 was a bad year for humanitarian journalism. It saw the closure of several key news organisations and significant redundancies at others. The most widely reported was the closure of Al Jazeera America in April. According to their board, their business model was, ‘simply not sustainable in light of the economic challenges in the U.S. media marketplace’.

In May, the two foreign correspondents at VICE News in London were laid off and in July SciDev.Net announced that it was cutting 90% of its London staff and the whole London editorial team due to a lack of funding. Most recently suspended operations in August due to a loss of funding from First Look Media.


Who pays for humanitarian journalism?

News organisations committed to reporting on humanitarian issues and crises face a double-bind. On one hand, such news is ‘not commercially viable’ because it is both expensive to produce and rarely attracts mass audiences or significant advertising revenue. On the other hand, the grant-funding which many non-profit news organisations turn to is increasingly difficult to secure. As Heba Aly, director of the humanitarian news organisation – IRIN – explains, ‘complex humanitarian reporting… [is] too political for the private sector; too mainstream for the traditional aid donors; not flashy enough for the digital media donors, and not upbeat enough for the activist campaigns’.

This apparent crisis in humanitarian journalism makes it increasingly difficult for citizens to learn about humanitarian crises and issues, for affected communities to have their voices heard and for humanitarian actors to be held accountable. The percentage people in the UK who say they have read, watched or listened to a news article about global poverty has declined from 66% to 54% in the last 12 months.

This crisis comes at a time when humanitarian need is reaching record levels. In the past decade, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance each year has grown from 30 million to a record 125 million. Washington PostOver the same period, the funding required to meet these needs has risen 600 percent, from $4 billion to an unprecedented $24 billion. Donor assistance has not kept pace. The gap between the amounts requested and given has never been greater. In 2016, UN-coordinated humanitarian appeals suffered, on average, from a 45% shortfall. Current funding trends suggest that the recently launched UN appeal for humanitarian funding for 2017 will be lucky to raise half the amount they’ve asked for.


Reasons for optimism

There are, however, some exceptions to the apparent decline in humanitarian news. This year, Channel 4 News’s Facebook page has received 200 million views per month – more than ITV, Sky News and the main BBC News Facebook page. According to presenter Jon Snow, material provided by people in Syria has been ‘the most hit element’. In November, the BBC World Service announced its biggest expansion ‘since the 1940s’, with 11 new language services launched as a result of extra funding from the UK government.

In April, RYOT was acquired by AOL in order to enhance The Huffington Post’s global coverage. RYOT is an immersive media company made up of humanitarian aid workers and filmmakers, which covers global and social issues through 360° and virtual reality experiences. Finally, IRIN has been able to survive its break away from the United Nations, albeit with a significantly reduced budget of around $2 million (compared to $11 million previously).

There are also on-going efforts to highlight the importance of humanitarian reporting. In May, for example, there was a special session at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) dedicated to protecting journalists and promoting independent reporting in crisis situations. More recently, the AidEx Humanitarian and Development Journalism Awards in November celebrated examples of compelling journalism in this field. The overall winner for reporting was Manveen Rana for A New Life in Europe: a 20 part series on BBC Radio’s the World at One, documenting what Syrian refugees experience as they journey through Europe.


What next?

Despite both the importance of humanitarian news and growing pressures it faces, we know very little about the political and economic dynamics that shape this journalistic field. Most existing research focusses on the details of how specific humanitarian crises are reported and why many crises are overlooked. Whilst this is important work, it tells us little about the size, structure and staffing of this field; its boundaries with other news beats; the role perceptions of the journalists involved and the influence of key actors such as sources and donors.

In order to begin to fill this important research gap, in 2017 we will be seeking to map the field of humanitarian journalism. This work began in late 2014 with a study of IRIN as it gained its independence from the UN. The recent award of an AHRC grant will enable us to expand our research to speak to and observe other news organisations in this field including the BBC World Service and Channel 4 News. We will also be involved in the next wave of the Aid Attitude Tracker (AAT): a long-term study of public attitudes and engagement with international development and humanitarian aid. Ultimately, we aim to establish the extent to which humanitarian journalism is facing a crisis, the nature and causes of this crisis and what can be done about it.

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  • Aaron Softley on December 15, 2016

    Intriguing blog! Do you think that part of the issue then is large news conglomerates such as the BBC and Channel 4 dominating the humanitarian market resulting in more specialist news organisations having less financial viability; and in turn reducing the accessibility of humanitarian journalism?

  • Martin Scott on February 17, 2017

    Thanks for the great question, Aaron. I don’t know if it’s a question of large news organisations squeezing others out and undermining their financial models. I think there are, broadly, two different markets for humanitarian news – one for a general audience and one for a specialist audience. These two markets certainly interact but I’m not sure if one undermines the other. I think that, for most organisations, it is just too expensive to produce. I also get the impression that there are so few news organisations regularly producing original journalism about humanitarian issues that there is not that much competition in this field.

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