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Crisis management 101: getting the journalists interested

By Ian Woolverton - posted Wednesday, 28 July 2010

One thing I've observed in 10 years of toiling to get the news media to report humanitarian emergencies is how difficult it is to prick its interest in these stories.

I'm not talking about the terrible earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones that wreak havoc in Asia. The scale of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Pakistan earthquake and cyclone in Burma were beyond comprehension and compelled the media to report them, since they were epic stories. Let's not forget the tragic start to this decade when a huge earthquake claimed the lives of 230,000 people in Haiti - another disaster that has been widely covered.

What I'm talking about are the silent or invisible disasters, such as HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis, or food shortages in parts of Africa that blight the lives of millions of people every year. I call these under-reported humanitarian disasters, and sadly they go under-reported too frequently.


Take Niger in West Africa, where a toxic cocktail of rising food prices, drought, dead or dying livestock and failed crops have conspired to put at risk millions of lives, including those of 400,000 children. It is terribly sad. Yet, apart from a few honourable mentions, the global news media has not covered this crisis in any real depth.

I'm not bagging the media for this. It's important to acknowledge that the media cannot report on every humanitarian story, nor does it exist to work exclusively for agencies like Save the Children. There are thousands of stories to cover every day and it is simply impossible for the stories that matter most to us humanitarians to make the headlines all the time.

That said, we can help the media report humanitarian crises by feeding information to journalists that is newsworthy and timely, as well as brimming with real-life drama and content that is relevant to readers or listeners. I can appreciate that, to some people, packaging stories in this way might seem cold-hearted, especially when we're talking about people's lives. But an understanding and respect for how the media shapes and packages news is essential to raise awareness of issues affecting the lives of families and children in far-off lands.

In this part of the world, it's often important to tell the story through the eyes of an Australian. I've lost count of the times the producer or editor on the end of the phone line has asked, "have you got an Aussie on the ground?".

It makes sense for an aid worker from Melbourne caught up in some human tragedy in a distant country to relate first hand the drama of a crisis that might otherwise be alien to an Australian audience. Though I have to admit sometimes that it's frustrating when a journalist chooses not to cover an important humanitarian issue solely due to a paucity of Aussie boots on the ground. Of course, when there are Australians involved in the emergency response, I use it to my advantage.

After the Haiti earthquake, I was amazed to receive a call from Victorian Ian Rodgers in Port-au-Prince, the capital of the impoverished Caribbean island. By some quirk of fate, Rodgers was on a field visit to Haiti with Save the Children when disaster struck. He was in the wrong place at the right time.


I didn't hesitate in lining up a plethora of Australian press interviews for Rodgers, all of whom were eager to hear his story and to learn what he was doing to help. The fact is that, because of Rodgers's media profile during the crucial first few days of the disaster, awareness of Save the Children's Haiti earthquake appeal went through the roof. We raised more than $1.4 million to provide life-saving aid to Haitian children and their families.

What the Haiti earthquake and, say, the Indian Ocean tsunami had in common was saturation media coverage, at least during the early and often visually dramatic stages of the crisis. That's precisely what's missing from the appalling human drama in Niger where, instead of hundreds of thousands of people being wiped out instantly by a wave or an earthquake, millions of families and children are slowly wasting away to nothing - all this terrible suffering is happening far from the media's glare.

The question I ask myself is: will the media help us avert mass starvation in Niger, or do millions of people, including up to 400,000 children, have to die for the human tragedy to become news?

The Australian community has proved time and again to be incredibly generous in responding to the needs of vulnerable people, at home and abroad. But first it must know there is a need. That's where the media can help raise public consciousness to world issues and events such as the food crisis in Niger.

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First published in the National Times on July 21, 2010. To Donate to Save the Children’s Niger food crisis appeal, call 1800 760 011 or visit Follow Ian Woolverton on Twitter: @iansave.

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About the Author

Ian Woolverton is emergencies media manager for Save the Children.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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