Millions are facing starvation – so why isn’t it making the headlines?

Journalism Course LondonIn the Sahel region of West Africa 18 million people are at risk of hunger, yet there’s minimal news coverage. Jody Crooks looks at what creates media interest in a disaster situation and how that affects aid agencies’ ability to respond.

Erratic rains, high food and fuel prices coupled with the displacement of 500,000 Malian refugees, have combined to leave 18 million people across the Sahel of West Africa at risk of hunger and malnutrition. The situation is so serious it is “positioned to claim more lives over time than the Asian Tsunami with 273,000 dead or the Haitian Earthquake with more than 217,000 dead,” according to a children’s development charity.

Despite such shocking figures you would be hard pushed to read about it other than in media specifically focussing on global development issues. This lack of news coverage creates a problem for aid agencies to find the funding they need to respond to the situation. In April, the UN said it would need $1.6 billion to avert this crisis but had only received 43% of those funds at that time.

The British public are very generous donors. They gave over £175 million through the Disaster and Emergency Committee (DEC) following the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods. However they can only give if they are aware of a situation. Andy Shipley, News Editor at Plan UK, a DEC member charity, talks about the difficulties NGOs face in trying to garner media interest to help them respond to emergencies.

According to Shipley, the three main criteria for creating media interest in a disaster are: “the magnitude, the connection to the readership and the availability of content”.  The huge amount of media coverage the 2004 Asian Tsunami acquired is a good example. Not only did it have massive impact but it affected British tourists and the footage was dramatic. In contrast, the Sahel food crisis is a slow onset disaster and Britain doesn’t have the same connection with the largely Francophone region.

Criticism was made of the late response to last year’s drought in East Africa. Despite early warning systems seemingly working well, the system was essentially unable to respond until people actually started dying. “It needs to be content driven,” says Andy. “The tipping point for coverage of the East Africa drought was the pictures of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.”

Andy says the media team at Plan have tried various approaches to increase coverage of the Sahel food crisis: “Foreign correspondents, video crews, celebrity and high profile visits”, but without much success. “The media feel that aid agencies cry wolf and can be insincere about the magnitude of a situation,” says Andy. “There’s a saying that NGOs have predicted ten of the last three famines.” Surely aid agencies need to predict situations in order to prepare for and avert disasters? “It’s a chicken and egg situation” says Andy.

It would appear that the issues involved in attracting media coverage for disasters are as complex as those causing this West African food crisis. Unfortunately, what is deemed relevant and interesting to readers is having a considerable impact on the funds that aid agencies are receiving to respond to this life and death situation. It looks like matters may have to get worse before they get better.