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Why so many humanitarian crises are ‘forgotten’, and 5 ideas to change that

‘In a world of increasingly severe humanitarian crises, traditional news values are not serving audiences well enough.’

Antonio Guterres giving a press conference in Bucha, Ukraine. April 2022. EYEPRESS Images/Reuters
UN Secretary-General António Guterres is surrounded by dozens of journalists as he visits towns around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in April 2022. Focusing on a narrow set of sources, journalists can often overlook what affected people have to say.

Last year, there were almost 100 times more online news articles about the actor Will Smith slapping comedian Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars ceremony than the humanitarian crisis in Malawi. The southern African country is experiencing a prolonged food crisis: 5.4 million people – more than a quarter of the population – are suffering “crisis” levels of hunger or worse due to 70% poverty and weather extremes.

 

But you are unlikely to read or hear about it in most news outlets. For much of the world, it’s a ‘forgotten’ crisis. 

 

Malawi’s is certainly not the only one – The New Humanitarian has just suggested 10 that are especially timely now. And every year, CARE International highlights the top 10 under-reported crises around the world. In its most recent report, all 10 crises are in Africa. Last year, the war in Ukraine received more coverage than 41 other humanitarian crises combined, according to CARE.

 

Public awareness – driven by media coverage – can in some circumstances help drive funding for humanitarian aid. Previous research has shown that one story about a foreign disaster in The New York Times is associated with an increase of more than $375,000 in US foreign aid. This means that people affected by under-reported crises in countries like Malawi are less likely to receive the assistance they need. 

 

In a world of increasingly severe humanitarian crises, traditional news values are not serving audiences well enough. In 2023, 339 million people in 69 countries will need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. This is an increase of 65 million people compared to the same time last year. 

 

Every day, journalists and editors make decisions about which events to cover. They generally prioritise those that are easy to explain, culturally familiar to the audience, and taking place in larger economies. This is why many of today’s crises are simply overlooked by mainstream media coverage. 

 

For humanitarian journalists, decisions on news coverage are guided by journalistic principles of impartiality and objectivity but also by humanitarian principles – such as humanity and alleviating suffering. They don’t view themselves as advocates, but do believe that all lives have equal value – no matter where they live. 

 

How can we hear more about these under-reported crises? Here are five ideas, drawn from an analysis of the political, economic, and social forces that shape the work of the humanitarian journalists we studied for our recent book, Humanitarian Journalists: Covering Crises from a Boundary Zone, in which The New Humanitarian is cited. 

Edited by Jessica Alexander.

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