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

Humanitarian journalism research in the news

Martin Scott

February 20, 2019


By Martin Scott (@martinscott2010)

Since January 2015, we have been investigating how the international news media report on humanitarian crises, what shapes their coverage and what influence it has.

In the last six months, we have begun to publish some early findings and analysis from this ongoing research project.

We have been pleasantly surprised how much news coverage our work has received, especially given one of our key findings is that there is a general lack of journalistic interest in humanitarian affairs.

For those interested in our research, we have summarised and linked to this news coverage below as we think it offers a succinct overview of our findings and its relevance to journalists, funders and audiences.

Report on humanitarian news

In October 2018, we published a report entitled ‘The State of Humanitarian Journalism’, where we document which news outlets regularly cover humanitarian affairs, the nature of their coverage and the challenges they face. We also discuss audience appetite for such coverage.

Our key findings are that:

• Very few international news organisations routinely cover humanitarian affairs.
• Most humanitarian journalism is now funded by states or private foundations.
• News outlets vary enormously in how they cover these emergencies
• Audiences are interested in humanitarian journalism – more than journalists think.
• Newspaper headlines don’t always have an immediate or direct effect on mass public perception of international aid.

We published two opinion pieces, about the report, for Inter Press Service (Why Are so Many Humanitarian Crises Under-reported?) and BOND (Humanitarian journalism in crisis).

This report was launched at an event entitled ‘Humanitarian Journalism Today’ at City, University of London. The event featured a panel of leading journalists and media commentators discussing the report’s findings as well as their own experiences reporting on humanitarian crises.

We also presented the results at the UN OCHA Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week in Geneva. The research was introduced by Ms Ursula Mueller, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who recorded a video for us.

Ms. Moeller also later endorsed our research via this tweet.

Foundation funding and international journalism

In January 2019, we published an academic article in the journal Journalism Studies about the unintended consequences of foundation funding for international journalism.

In it, we argue that that foundation funding unintentionally reshapes international journalism to favour outcome-oriented, explanatory reporting in a small number of niche subject areas. This is not because foundations deliberately try to influence editorial decision. Rather, it an unintended consequences of the broader ways in which foundations and journalists interact.

This research was covered by a number of news organisations.

Columbia Journalism Review, for example, ran an article entitled ‘How foundation funding changes the way journalism gets done’, based on an interview with Martin Scott. In it, they focus on the wider consequences of our study.

Every form of funding, however well-meaning, shapes the kind of journalism that gets done, and that includes funding from foundations and nonprofits. While their motives may be pure, the fact that they hold the purse strings inevitably changes the way newsrooms that rely on that funding do their jobs. And with more media outlets turning to alternative sources of financing as advertising revenue dries up, the issue is likely to get even more acute in the future.

Martin Scott also summarised the findings in an opinion piece for Nieman Reports entitled, ‘What’s Wrong with Philanthro-Journalism?’. In it, he highlights the wider significance of the research, arguing that,

These changes to international journalism are not inherently “good” nor “bad.” What concerns us most is that the nature of international journalism—and the role that it plays in democracy—is inadvertently being shaped by a handful of foundations, rather than by journalists themselves.

The research was also covered by AidEx, Alliance Magazine, Non-profit Quarterly and the American Press Institute.

We have now published 4 journal articles, 1 report and 1 book chapter on the subject of foundation-funded journalism and so now have a webpage dedicated to this aspect of our research.

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