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

REPORT: The state of humanitarian journalism

Martin Scott

October 16, 2018


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By Martin Scott, Kate Wright and Mel Bunce. In this report we present some of the findings of our four year, global research project into the state of humanitarian journalism around the world. We ask,

  1. Which news organisations regularly report on humanitarian affairs? How are they funded, and what ethical problems or professional dilemmas does this create for journalists covering humanitarian affairs?
  2. When natural disasters and violent conflicts are reported, what kinds of journalistic coverage do they receive? Do news outlets differ from one another, and if so, how?
  3. How interested are news audiences in journalism about humanitarian affairs? How well does existing coverage serve their needs, and the needs of those involved in international aid? Which significant ‘gaps’ are there in news provision?
  4. What effects does news coverage have on public attitudes towards international aid?

See here for the full report Humanitarian News Report

See here for the Press Release

We found that:

  1. Very few international news organisations routinely cover humanitarian affairs. Only 12 news outlets reported on all four of the humanitarian events we analysed in 2016. Because of the high costs of producing regular, original journalism on humanitarian issues, commercial news organisations do not usually cover humanitarian issues, with the exception of major ‘emergencies’.
  2. Most humanitarian journalism is now funded by states or private foundations. This is worrying because claiming that particular actors or activities are ‘humanitarian’ is a powerful form of legitimacy. It is important that media about the suffering does not become a vehicle for commercial or political interests.
  3. A major challenge of foundation funding is its unsustainable nature, as most foundations want to provide start-up money, rather than giving ongoing support. Meanwhile government funding can constrain where and how humanitarian reporting takes place because of foreign policy objectives and diplomatic tensions.
  4. Journalists are often criticised for sporadic, sensationalistic and de-contextualised news coverage on conflicts, side-lining detailed analyses of long-running crises. But our research shows that news organisations which produce a lot of humanitarian coverage tend to do the opposite. They produce relatively few ‘hard news’ reports, focusing instead on detailed features, analysis pieces and some campaigning reports.
  5. There were a number of important gaps in the topics that news reports addressed. Gender was treated in a very narrow way within humanitarian reporting during 2017. Almost no articles looked at the specific problems faced by women and girls in relation to the conflicts in Yemen and South Sudan. Many (largely female) journalists wanted to cover more varied stories about the issues faced by women and girls, but found it hard to get these stories commissioned.
  6. News articles about humanitarian emergencies quote some sources of information far more than others. International organisations and NGOs were quoted frequently in reports on conflict, for example, while local citizens were not. Affected citizens made up only 16% of sources in coverage of conflict in South Sudan and just 12% of sources in reporting on Yemen.
  7. Journalists are often accused of producing homogenous and decontextualised constructions of natural disasters. But news outlets vary enormously in how they cover these emergencies. For instance, we found that Thomson Reuters focused on breaking stories about dramatic and timely events, and reported with a largely Western audience in mind. By contrast, the specialist humanitarian news outlet, IRIN, wrote thematic pieces and analysis, targeted at a more global audience.
  8. Audiences are interested in humanitarian journalism – more than journalists think. In a large-scale survey of international audiences (UK, France, Germany and the US), more people claimed to follow news about ‘humanitarian disasters’ (59%) either ‘closely’ or ‘fairly closely’ than any other type of international news. Another survey of 1600 people working in the aid sector found there was widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of most mainstream news coverage of humanitarian issues. Respondents said they wanted more investigative reporting and consistent coverage of ongoing crises.
  9. Finally, newspaper headlines don’t always have an immediate or direct effect on mass public perception of international aid. The Daily Mail’s criticisms of international aid agencies “wasting money” do not seem to have damaged audiences’ interest in, or commitment to, international aid.

Scott, M. Wright, K. and Bunce, M. 2018. The state of humanitarian journalism. University of East Anglia.

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