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Leading voices discuss media role in disasters

10/02/2011

Panellists at the event discuss the role of the media in disasters.After a year dominated by humanitarian disasters, Plan UK felt the need to reflect on the complexities of reporting such events in the media. At a special event, we brought together leading voices in the media and humanitarian worlds to discuss this issue and new research into the public’s perceptions of disaster relief efforts.

Graphic accounts of the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan spilled into living rooms around the country through television, radio and the web in 2010. But had the media managed to report the complexities of the emergencies? What challenges had aid agencies faced in effectively communicating their work and priorities?

The Plan event was chaired by Plan patron and former UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, Sir John Holmes.  He was joined by the BBC World News editor, Jon Williams; the editor of Reuters Alertnet, Tim Large, the Daily Mail’s veteran foreign correspondent, Dame Anne Leslie, the CEO of the Disasters Emergency Committee, Brendan Gormley; and lecturer in Media and Communications at LSE, Dr Shani Orgad.

Responsibility

“As intermediaries between survivors of catastrophes and the British public, both the media and NGOs have an enormous responsibility,” says Plan’s Head of Advocacy, Campaigns and Communications, Leigh Daynes. “The panellists approached the subject with remarkable self analysis and criticism, which allowed us to fully explore complex and difficult issues.”

The panel discussed new research by Plan UK into the public's reaction to media reporting of disasters and agreed that providing reliable information from disaster areas can help better engage the public as a whole. This in turn, can help saves lives on the ground.  But questions arose about the best way to convey this information.  Should journalists stick strictly to the facts? What is the difference between straightforward reports and being too simplistic? What role do emotions and sentiment play?

Journalists suggested that telling compelling human stories is the best way to convey the realities of a humanitarian emergency to the British public. There was disappointment that disasters are often covered in the same way: reports on the hunt for survivors, followed by reports on the risks of disease, followed by reports criticising the slow response of aid agencies. 

Humanitarian workers at the event called for more commitment from journalists in their coverage of disasters. They suggested that if reporters revisit the stories that make headlines, the public can get a truer picture of humanitarian emergencies in places like Haiti and Pakistan. Such follow-up can help people remain engaged with the issues.

Held to account

Aid agencies were also held to account for the way they engage with journalists during humanitarian emergencies - warned that the media is not their mouth piece.  Charities were advised that if they want to secure coverage, they need to be open to scrutiny and  willing to analyse each other’s work.  The more honest NGOs can be, the more truthful a picture of the difficulties of humanitarian emergencies can emerge, and the more likely it is that journalists will be willing to work with them. 

“The evening allowed the opportunity for more systematic dialogue between the humanitarian and media worlds,” says Mr Daynes. “These kinds of conversations are vital and lead to better understanding on both sides.”

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