Are Disaster News Stories a Catastrophe? Why Aid Agencies Should Partner with the Press

Since typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines last month, some predictable patterns of disaster news coverage have begun to emerge – including evidence of a sometimes contentious relationship between the press and aid organizations. This week on PLOS TGH, Columbia University’s Chris Tedeschi explores. 

Flickr / DFID - UK Department for International DevelopmentStories about the acute phase of the disaster—sudden chaos and unprecedented destruction—have given way to a secondary wave of intermittent criticism, stories of corruption, and even debate about why we still can’t get it right when the international aid machine groans into action.

On, John Crowley argued that a disproportionate number of stories ask why disaster responders have not yet repaired a system rife with inefficiency.  He notes that reports from the field indicate that the problems are not as pronounced as news reports make them out to be.

Crowley argues that some of the overblown coverage reflects the moment when journalists witness the inevitable chaos before roads are cleared and medicines are delivered.  He blames the media for exaggerating this disparity of supply and demand in the early phase of a crisis, and for “scaremongering” security issues, ultimately delaying aid.

But even the scaremongering is part of an awkward symbiotic relationship between aid groups and the press.  Reporters depend on NGOs for access, and in turn, aid organizations survive on dollars donated by individuals and groups moved by dramatic news reports.

The secondary wave of  reporting usually focuses on something gone awry—fuel line brawls after Sandy, cholera in Haiti, everything in Katrina—and helps to maintain viewership while postponing crisis fatigue, thus generating more support for agencies on the ground.  Oftentimes, financial contributions from this phase can pad the budget of NGOs for months to come.

In Linda Polman’s The Crisis Caravan:  What’s Wrong with Humanitarian Aid, journalist Richard Dowden describes the relationship between NGOs and the media in Goma following the 1994 Rwandan genocide:  “Each [NGO representative] would give a higher death toll, because each one would know that the man with the highest death toll would get on the nine o’clock news that night.   And being on the nine o’clock news meant you got money….”

Flickr / Official U.S. Navy ImageryTo some degree, the media does focus disproportionately on what’s gone wrong, partly because journalists fall into a trap of propagating classic disaster myths:  all aid comes from far away, countless people and resources are required, and locals often can’t help themselves.

Few reporters cover humanitarian crisis full time.  A 2004 study by the Fritz Institute and Reuters Foundation found that of 265 reporters surveyed, only 27 said that crisis stories were more than half their output.  Reporters who do specialize in humanitarian emergencies often lack resources or the specialist knowledge to understand complex issues, and make poor use of available resources such as the UN OCHA website and reliefweb.

Ultimately, Crowley’s conclusion is on target.  Information is aid.  Stories should focus on building capacity and empowering responders, and describing the experiences of those impacted by the disaster.  Less congratulatory stories should focus not on the unalterable realities of disaster response, but on the need for organizations to operate efficiently and transparently.

“It is time to look at how effectively international organizations are supporting a normally well-oiled (but now struggling) domestic response capacity,” Crowley argues, “not how international aid shipments are arriving late.”  Sadly, it’s not that simple.  Stories about how everything is going well would fail to paint the real picture, and would deny a critical role of the press:  to expose injustice, highlight inefficiency, and serve the public.

Flickr / DVIDSHUBHistorically, NGOs and humanitarian organizations have been largely immune from critical coverage, despite an enormous diversity in the quality of the services they provide. In a rare exception after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, a Lancet editorial described the aid machine as “polluted by the internal power politics and unsavoury characteristics seen in many big corporations.”

So maybe the press should be even more critical of what’s going on in the field.  What about missed benchmarks and overspending?  And why are those aid shipments arriving late after all?  We should encourage coverage – for the benefit of donors, readers and affected populations – of poorly coordinated efforts, of groups who cannot provide their own volunteers with basic necessities, of money and resources spent on aid which never reaches its goal, of disaster tourists who take more than they give.

NGOs and reporters alike ought to avoid the trap of addressing inputs rather than outputs, describing how many dollars have been donated or tons of medicine have been shipped, rather than what those dollars purchased or who received the medications.

Flickr / Are Disaster News Stories a Catastrophe?  Why Aid Agencies Should Partner with the Press

Several authors have argued for standardization in the practice of humanitarian assistance, but a formal system has yet to emerge.  In any emergency, most NGOs and aid groups will demonstrate excellence.  But sometimes, there will be confusion, wastefulness, and corruption.  And when the dollars at stake have come from governments, private donors, church groups and bake sales, the folks spending the money deserve to know what happens on the ground.

NGOs should take the lead in understanding their role in preventing disaster “catastrophization.”  In the Fritz/Reuters study, when journalists were asked, “what do you consider the most difficult barrier to crisis reporting?” the most common answers included “lack of response from groups at the scene,” and “lack of coordination between groups at the scene and their own parent organizations.”

So how can NGOs avoid coverage that makes their skin crawl?  Offer press training to field workers.  Develop strategies for press relations.  Share (don’t hide) information regarding peer organizations, and avoid duplicated effort.  Understand that reporters are under pressure to tell dramatic stories that include conflict.  And most of all, prepare for greater scrutiny:  humanitarian aid workers are professionals spending millions of dollars of other people’s money, and ought to be accountable for it.


Christopher Tedeschi, MD, MA, is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University and a practicing emergency physician.  He is past-chair of the disaster and humanitarian medicine committee of the Wilderness Medical Society and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine.  He has worked in disaster preparedness in India, Sri Lanka, the US and elsewhere with an interest in media coverage and communications during emergencies.  He is visiting faculty at the Global Emergency Medicine program at Weill Cornell Medical College.  Prior to medical school, he received his master’s from the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins and worked for HBO Documentaries.  He lives in NYC.

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