The answer is far more complicated than you thinkby Jessica Abrahams / March 27, 2019 / Leave a comment
From Yemen to South Sudan to Haiti, humanitarian needs are at record levels as crises driven by conflict and climate change become increasingly protracted. This year, the United Nations is estimating it will need $25bn to help 132m people in 42 countries.
There are lives at risk in all of those places—but some attract more attention than others, as a recent analysis from CARE International highlighted. Based on over 1m news reports in English, French and German language media, it found that hunger crises in Africa—including in Ethiopia, Madagascar and Chad, where millions of people are at risk of severe food shortages—were largely overlooked by the media in 2018, in favour of crises in the Middle East, including Syria and Yemen.
This raises some important questions. Most obviously: why do some crises receive more coverage than others? But there is a deeper issue in all of this, and that is whether media attention actually helps when it comes to humanitarian crises. Does the amount of air time any given crisis receives really affect how much is done to address it, as intuition might suggest—or is the reality more complex?
For a long time, the assumption has been that headlines do make a difference. “We see more and more complex and chronic crises competing for public attention. Media coverage has always been a strong driver of funding for crises as well as creating political pressure to protect those in need,” explained Caroline Kende-Robb, CARE International secretary general, in a press release.
The claim is backed up by the so-called “CNN effect”—a theory often taught as part of journalism and political science courses—which suggests that the advent of harrowing rolling news coverage of emergencies around the world, driven by new technologies since the 1980s, has helped to shape the political response to those crises.
But after decades of research on the issue, many analysts now doubt it. They believe media coverage has only limited impact on international funding and political action, and under specific conditions. In many cases, it is political attention that drives media coverage, rather than the other way round.
What is true is that media coverage leads to more charitable donations from individuals who are moved to help. Powerful images like that of Alan Kurdi, the…