News media coverage of famines is not adequate

Media attention spurs governments and people to action

“If you are planning a famine, don’t hold it in summer—we’re on vacation then. Also, avoid U.S. election years. We’re too busy to pay attention.”

That old and sad “joke” is one relief workers used to tell years ago to explain the lack of media attention for some disasters in the developing world.

It came back to me as I thought about how little coverage the terrible hunger crisis in parts of Africa and Yemen is getting today.

And it is terrible; an estimated 20 million people face starvation in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and parts of Kenya and Nigeria.

It’s the largest humanitarian food crisis in 70 years, according to the UN.

And yet, there has been very little news about it in the Canadian media.

Sure, there’s been a bit of coverage here and there. The late May announcement of the government’s matching Famine Relief Fund generated a bit of attention.

But, in general, there has been mostly silence.

Why is this the case? I can think of a few reasons.

First, it’s a hard story to tell. Journalists can’t get into the most-devastated areas – even relief groups have trouble getting to places of the greatest need due to fighting.

Second, media outlets also have fewer resources and staff to cover stories.

Even if they wanted to do more, it would be hard to find the funds, space or time to do it. The rise of social media, and the drop in advertising and circulation, has hit the media hard.

Third, it’s hard to tell the story of a famine. Famines take months to develop. Until the food runs out, and people are dying, there are few dramatic images of need to show or stories to tell. By the time it does hit the news, it is often too late.

Fourth there’s the Trump effect; the U.S. President has sucked up much of the media oxygen. Throw in terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, plus all the other news competing for attention, and it can be hard to find time and space for the famine.

Unfortunately, this lack of media coverage for disasters like famines isn’t new.

That was the finding of a 2007 study of major U.S. TV network news by Thomas Eisensee and David Stromberg.

Titled “News, Droughts, Floods, and U.S. Disaster Relief, it looked at how 5,000 natural disasters between 1968 and 2002 that affected 125 million people were covered by the major U.S. TV networks.

The study found that coverage was affected by whether the disaster occurs at the same time as other newsworthy events, such as the Olympic Games, along with where it happened and how many people died.

It showed that while the media covered around 30 percent of the earthquakes and volcanic disasters, less than five percent of droughts and food shortages were covered – despite many more people dying due to droughts and food shortages.

The authors even came up with a numerical comparison: For every one or two people who dies in an earthquake or volcano overseas, 32,920 people must die of food shortage to receive the same media coverage.

The study also revealed geographical bias, showing that it 45 times more Africans have to die in a disaster than Europeans to get the same kind of media coverage.

But when the media did pay attention to a disaster in the developing world, the study showed that people responded. It found that media attention spurred governments and people to action.

That’s what we need today. Aid groups like Canadian Foodgrains Bank are trying to get the word out to Canadians about this need, and about the special government match.

But we need help. The media is still one of the best ways to reach large numbers of people.

Will the media step up? I hope so. The lives of millions depend on it.

– John Longhurst directs communications, marketing and fundraising for Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 church agencies seeking to end global hunger. The Canadian government will match all donations for famine relief 1:1 by June 30. To make a donation, visit www.foodgrainsbank.ca