Humanitarian Emergencies: The Role of the Media

New media has undoubtedly changed the way people across the globe consume and share information. It can sometimes seem that we are experiencing information overload, as we are increasingly struck by pop culture news such as Kim Kardashian’s wedding. Which brings us to pause and consider: What is the role of new media in topics of a less sensational variety, such as humanitarian crises?

The question came to my mind during a recent panel discussion hosted at the NYU’s Wagner School last week. Underwritten by the Overseas Press Club and the New York Women’s Initiative for CARE, the panelists included Allan Dodds Frank, investigative reporter and former Overseas Press Club president, founder of OPC Global Parachute, a new social networking site for foreign correspondents; Sam Gregory, program director, Witness, co-author of Cameras Everywhere 2011 Report; Cath Turner, reporter and producer, Al Jazeera English; and Hina Chaudhry, MD, director of Cardiovascular Regenerative Medicine at Mt Sinai. The discussion was moderated by Alan Murray, deputy managing editor and executive editor, online, The Wall Street Journal.

As the discussion progressed, there was no disagreement from the panelists as to whether or not new media is playing a role in exposing and even shaping humanitarian crises. Among the examples cited were the Arab Spring and the London Riots. However, there were highly varied postulations on how this role will, and should, evolve.  While many questions were uncovered throughout the discussion, there was consensus among the panelists on three main factors which limit media coverage dedicated to global humanitarian crises. The first of which is resources.

Cath explained a factor that sets Al Jazeera apart from most news sources. This being the significant financial support available to them through the network’s founder Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar. These resources afford journalists the opportunity to undertake expensive endeavors such as setting up foreign bureau desks in remote locations. Unlike most U.S. broakcast and print sources, Al Jazeera has ability to provide comprehensive coverage for extended periods of time. Most US broadcast and print sources face budgets cuts and restrictions as a result of the recession. This lack of established infrastructure in the epicenter of humanitarian crises is leading to a steep increase in citizen journalism, made ever easier with the use of mobile phones. However, these citizen-uploaded videos and tweets can not only be largely unreliable in terms of accuracy or bias, but they also present a significant challenge in terms of safety.

Safety was another theme largely discussed throughout the evening. Panelists, Allan and Sam, noted it being a primary issue in the coverage of humanitarian crises. Working in advocacy journalism, Sam noted that oftentimes journalists will put themselves in precarious situations to cover the story at hand. Both Alan and Allan cited the death of Daniel Pearl as an unfortunate, but realistic example of the true risk that is being undertaken when covering humanitarian crises and conflicts. Even Dr. Chaudhry cited that while studying in Pakistan, she was “nearly abducted”. However, as stated by one of the panelists, safety is not only a concern for those behind the camera, but even more so for those in front of it. In a world where many people in developing nations do not have access to transportation, schooling or water, but do have access to mobile phones, the game has changed for those who choose to share their point of view.

GPS technology is often linked to mobile phones, and when video is instaneously streamed online, individuals sharing a particular point of view may be at extreme risk. Sam explained that his organization has, in fact, developed a mobile app called the SecureSmartCam to blur the faces of those featured in videos to protect their safety. Before technology is more prevalent, a question remains regarding the role of big players in new media such as YouTube and Twitter in protecting the safety of these individuals, if there is one at all.

Even as videos and tweets are constantly generated and put out into the ether, it is up to individuals to decide what information they choose to consume. People still have the choice to search for something else, enter a new web address or change the channel. According to Alan, an “excuse” from media executives 40-50 years ago as to why humanitarian crises are not being covered would be that “our audiences don’t like to read about them”; however, what data would he have to support that in the case of print newspapers? Contrast that scenario against today’s climate which includes a plethora of analytics available to those managing new media. Editors and advertisers can truly tell what readers, followers, viewers, etc. really want to consume, and at the end of the day, as concurred by the panel, it comes down to the fact that the media is a business.

This is not to say that it is impossible for humanitarian crises to receive more or adequate coverage through new media. One tactic that seems to provide significant lift to coverage is when a celebrity or public figure connects themselves and their brand with a particular issue or crises- e.g. Hope for Haiti Telethon, and there may be many other tactics yielding extreme success that have not yet been employed.

The panel exited the discussion leaving the audience feeling both more educated and curious. I left wondering why it takes a startling photo on the cover of the New York Times to truly grab the attention of much of the general public (including myself), and why we have to seek information about these crises out, rather than have them delivered to us. There isn’t a doubt that new media is here to stay and it has significant impact on all world events, including humanitarian crises, but it rarely being harnessed to lift up these crises in the way they may deserve. Why do you think that is?


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