BOOK CHAPTER: The Politics of Humanitarian Journalism

In this chapter, we draw attention to the considerable gaps in our knowledge about humanitarian journalism. While there has been comprehensive research on the content of humanitarian news, an especially on the question of which crises receive coverage, there is limited scholarship on the production or reception of this journalism. In particular, we know little about how journalists conceptualise the boundaries of humanitarianism, or how cultural contexts and political / economic forces inform this process. In recent years, private foundations and humanitarian agencies have become major funders and producers of humanitarian news content – yet we know little about what impact these groups are having. Moreover, the vast majority of existing research has focused on Anglo-American journalists, organisations and funders. Finally, our knowledge about the impact of humanitarian journalism often falls back on research conducted prior to the social media era.

Humanitarians often strive to be impartial; this helps them gain and maintain access to crises, and operate in some of the most challenging contexts around the globe. But this does not mean that journalistic and academic discussion about it should also be. The re-emergence of famine in South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, for example, is not just a tragedy but a scandal and it should be reported as such. Moreover, powerful actors often claim that their actions are humanitarian when they seek to legitimise them, and journalists can inadvertently facilitate this process.

We encourage news organisations and journalists to critically reflect on the actors, organisations and events they consider to be ‘humanitarian’. In particular, we encourage them to think beyond existing humanitarian categories that emphasise ‘crises’ and ‘the aid industry’ as the focus of reports. A limited focus on these topics may neglect structural, long term factors that contribute to humanitarian suffering, as well as the diverse actors involved in their relief.

The chapter, ‘The Politics of Humanitarian Journalism’ (Scott, Bunce and Wright) is forthcoming (2018) in The Routledge Handbook of Humanitarian Communication (Chouliaraki and Verstergaard (eds.)).

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