Sun, Dec 25, 2005 - Page 9 News List

New Web resource to track the disasters the media ignores

Uneven press coverage of humanitarian crises leads to an imbalance in aid contributions, but a new Web site for journalists aims to fill some of the gaps

By Ben Flanagan  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

From the tsunami to hurricane Katrina, 2005 will be remembered as the year of humanitarian disasters. But will the media response to these events also go down in history as a disaster?

You wouldn't think so given the extensive press coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which helped the UN raise 80 percent of its emergency appeal in 10 days.

But the Kashmir earthquake in October, in which more people were left homeless than in the tsunami, did not attract sustained press coverage. The quake has almost fallen off the news agenda -- and the UN reported a poor response to its emergency appeal. Press coverage of conflict in northern Uganda, and famine in Africa, was even briefer.

So could news editors be suffering from "compassion fatigue"? Was the press coverage and charitable donation after the tsunami a one-off? These are the concerns of aid agencies anxious that media, public and government react disproportionally to certain disasters.

"Media coverage is one of the key things that leads to the imbalance of aid. The public are generous once they're made aware of a disaster. But they only have partial exposure to events," said Brendan Cox, emergency specialist at Oxfam.

"News editors have quite a crude idea that the public is not interested in black people dying [in a country] far away. So it's hard for us to get past these gatekeepers. The media shouldn't be the arbiter of humanitarian intervention," he said.

Though Cox would not describe the media coverage of the humanitarian disasters in 2005 as a failure, he says that Oxfam commits the vast majority of its media resources to pushing interest in "forgotten emergencies."

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one example. Reports show that one month's death toll exceeded 31,000, and that 2.8 million are displaced. Yet in the UK for instance, there have been just 53 national newspaper stories on the conflict, compared with 4,543 on the tsunami.

Possible reasons for this are the difficulty of access and the dangers of reporting.

Other emergencies may go under-reported when stories are deemed too complex or when there's difficulty getting a human angle. Disasters in places with a "home connection" may get more attention.

So could next year see a change of approach? Mark Jones, editor of Reuters AlertNet (www.AlertNet.org), reckons it could. AlertNet, a news network geared primarily toward NGOs and humanitarian specialists, has just won nearly ?500,000 (US$867,000) in financial backing from the UK government to finance the first two years of a project called MediaBridge. This will be an online community for journalists reporting on humanitarian crises, providing tools and contextual content, as well as monitoring press coverage of such events.

"The media tend to go for `acts of God'", says Jones. "But if I tried to sell you the story of Congo, you might say it could wait until tomorrow, or the next day, or the next decade."

"I'd like to challenge journalists to think again about other ways to report humanitarian crises."

The project, which Jones insists will be completely independent, is the result of a study conducted by the Columbia School of Journalism which found that journalists reporting on crises need more background facts, tips on breaking stories, and information on relief agencies. MediaBridge plans to provide such information.

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