Jun 1 2005

World’s Worst Disasters Overlooked

Survey identifies biggest “forgotten” crises

Congo is the site of the world’s worst humanitarian emergency, according to U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland, the organization Doctors Without Borders and most relief professionals. But English-language media have given the crisis minimal attention, according to a study of humanitarian disaster coverage released on March 10.

The study was commissioned by web-based Reuters AlertNet, an eight-year-old U.K.-based humanitarian news network. It found that the tsunami that ravaged Indian Ocean coastal regions on December 26, 2004 garnered more English-language media coverage in the first two months after it struck than 10 other “forgotten” emergencies—six of them in Africa—have received in the past year.

AlertNet asked 103 relief professionals, activists, media personalities and academics which humanitarian emergencies they would urge media to cover in 2005. It then analyzed coverage of the most-named emergencies, along with the tsunami, in about 200 English-language newspapers around the world, ranging from Nigeria’s Vanguard to the New York Times, from March 2004 through February 2005.

Top 10 emergencies

Among the major emergencies said to deserve greater media coverage—some of which had civilian death tolls dwarfing the 300,000 persons estimated killed by the tsunami—the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) ranked highest. Half of those polled named this conflict-riven central African country as the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.

The head of the Irish aid group GOAL told AlertNet it was “the worst humanitarian tragedy since the Holocaust. Five million dead, and yet the neighboring countries have gone unpunished as they drop in and out of the Congo to feed their greed.”

The other top emergencies identified in the poll included:

  • Uganda, where civil warhas killed 100,000 and driven 1.8 million people from their homes, while 30,000 children have been conscripted or sexually abused.
  • Sudan, with about 2 million killed and 5.5 million displaced from their homes in the south, and 70,000 killed and up to 2 million displaced since March 2004 in western Sudan.
  • West Africa, including Sierra Leone, where 2.5 million people have been displaced by war, and Liberia, which has 400,000 refugees still waiting to return home two years after the war_ended.
  • Colombia, with 3 million people driven from their homes and 35,000 killed since the early 1990s.
  • Chechnya, which has 600,000 displaced by war and 20 percent of the population yet to return home.
  • Nepal, where over 40 percent live below the poverty line, half of all children under five are underweight and between 100,000 and 200,000 persons are displaced or cut off from all aid.
  • Haiti, 55 percent of whose population live on less than $1 a day, and 42 percent of whose children under five are malnourished.

HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis were also identified as major crises deserving more media attention. In southern Africa alone, 30 percent of adults are infected with HIV and 14 million children orphaned by AIDS.

Striking disparities

The disparities in amount of coverage are striking. In a little more than two months, the tsunami received more than four times as much coverage as Sudan received in a year—and Sudan got more media attention than any of the other “forgotten” crises. The emergencies in Uganda and West Africa each got about one-seventh as much media interest as the tsunami.

For Congo, deemed the most pressing humanitarian disaster in the world, the ratio was 11:1; for Chechnya it was 12:1, and for both Haiti and HIV/AIDS 13:1. For every 15 stories on the tsunami, there was one on Nepal, and 24 tsunami reports for every one on Colombia. Infectious disease was the least visible of the crises named in the survey, out-covered by the tsunami by 38 to 1.

All in all, the tsunami got slightly more coverage in two months than all 10 of the “forgotten” crises combined received in a year.

Focusing on the “top 10 neglected emergencies” is just a device, of course; there are many more emergencies around the world that are equally or more poorly covered, including crises in Somalia, Myanmar, Rwanda, the Philippines and Western Sahara, as well as crises related to foreign debt, water shortages and other issues.

The why of tsunami coverage

While reduced reporting of the tsunami would not necessarily have led to greater reporting of other crises around the world, “trends over the four months up to the end of February . . . [indicate] that the volume of media coverage of the ‘forgotten’ emergencies has fallen post-tsunami,” AlertNet editor Mark Jones reported in a March 10 press release. Only Nepal’s crisis showed an increase in media attention in the post-tsunami period.

A March 10 AlertNet-sponsored public panel debate on the study’s findings and AlertNet interviews of those polled identified several factors that contributed to the tsunami’s extensive coverage. The tsunami was “simpler, visual and more dramatic, in ways that both drought and conflict aren’t,” noted the U.K.-based Humanitarian Policy Group’s Paul Harvey. There also was no one to “blame,” as there are in conflict emergencies with complex roots and causes.

Another key factor in tsunami coverage was “the fact . . . that news is about things that are new, and the tsunami was new. People dying in Africa is not new,” noted U.K. Evening Standard and Spectator correspondent and panel member Andrew Gilligan. “Crisis fatigue” is a large factor in limiting coverage of some emergencies. “The story is always the same,” Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Britain’s Channel 4 TV news, told AlertNet. “It induces despair. It’s expensive and dangerous, and one feels that there are no solutions and no end to it all.”

Reporters pressing for greater coverage are often blocked by editors who question readers’ interest and whether such coverage will boost their papers’ profitability. Lack of funds to send reporters overseas is a major limiting factor, noted U.K. Skye TV News executive producer Tim Cunningham. But he conceded a striking disparity in resources allocated by Skye to covering Africa’s crises (one reporter) and the tsunami (50 journalists).

Other explanations offered included the fact that many tourists had vacationed in countries hit by the tsunami and as readers felt connected to the region. Foreign press also found it easier to interview the many English-speaking tourists who survived. Few tourists, by contrast, visit the sites of more isolated and conflict-driven emergencies. The tsunami was also logistically easier to report on, given Asia’s more developed transport and communication infrastructure.

Several panelists and audience members questioned whether emergencies in dangerous areas would ever elicit extensive coverage because of the security risks to reporters. “Which cameraman is alive today,” asked one audience member, “who has the courage to stand there and take the photograph of the guy committing genocide? Of course he does not exist. . . . He would be killed. . . . [So] we are not going to get that sort of footage that would stir the world into the sort of action we want.”