Can news still change the course of history?

October 27, 2014

By Antonia Roupell

“Does the Pubic Still Care?” was the poignant title of the discussion on conflict and disaster reporting which was chaired by Ben Parker at the Frontline Club on Thursday 23 October. The event was organised by the Oversees Development Institute and Humanitarian Policy Group. Channel 4 News anchor, Jon Snow, and senior reporter for the People and Power programme on Al Jazeera English, Juliana Ruhfus, were joined by experts in aid and development, Marc DuBois, former head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Eva Svoboda, research fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute.

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The event was being followed online #crisisreporting

The relationship of dependency and power that exists between aid agencies, the public and the media was the core focus of the evening. Using examples from Gaza to Haiti and East Timor, the panel illustrated the crisis and development each of these elements has undergone and how it has affected the other.

To begin the audience was taken back to the 1984 Ethiopia famine with Michael Burke’s compelling documentary report. Parker, who has worked in media and humanitarian aid for 20 years, opened the discussion with the following question:

“Can a news moment like Michael Burke’s piece happen again? . . . Can it ignite the public? Can it change the course of history in a small way? . . . Does TV in that same way still exist?”

Snow’s initial response was an affirmative yes. He used examples from the last four years of public response to make his case. For example, the 2010 Haiti earthquake saw the emergency fund raise it’s second largest ever donation. Snow said, “The stream is certainly not dry and I would argue that our connected digital world is making it easier for us to draw attention.”

DuBois similarly dismissed public disaster fatigue and focused on the power of compassion, saying “disaster is inherently compelling . . . compassion is alive and well”.

Ruhfus instead argued that the quality of giving has changed. She referred to the lack of clarity and neutrality in today’s media reports and national aid donations.

“The ‘us’ and ‘them’ that was very simple when Michael Burke made his films has totally shifted. . . . I am the enemy. I am no longer the ‘saviour’ and that’s a similar fate that aid agencies are dealing with too.”

Ruhfus implied that in the past aid agencies were able to function in an apolitical sphere. Svoboda’s standpoint was somewhere in between, to her mind although 9/11 had a negative impact on aid agencies they were always politicised. She argued that despite being more complex, today there are more actors, more competition and, importantly, more accountability. All four of the speakers agreed that more people in the world are aware of what is going on around them than ever before.

The discussion turned to the ever-present Ebola crisis and its slow journey to UK headlines. This highlighted the question of responsibility between the aid agencies and the media to expose conflicts and disasters adequately. Snow asked his fellow speakers, “How far did the aid agencies go in persuading governments that there was a crisis?”

In return he was asked by Svoboda and DuBois how many reports were not picked up by the media. Svoboda said, “Very often you will be faced with people who just don’t care, with states that don’t care about their international obligations.”

Snow clarified the media’s stance, “We are not in the field to raise money or bring relief in any form, but to tell the story.”

Despite his positive outlook Snow admitted the failure of the media coverage on Ebola and thus the insufficient pressure on the UK government. He expressed his frustrations as a journalist with failed government policies. Of the current humanitarian crisis caused by ISIS he said:

“ISIS is a direct consequence of our people, by our people I mean us Westerners. Somehow we made this mess. Of course it was there ready to be made but at least we could have left it to them to make it.”

Ruhfus looked to the public as a key factor and blamed too much negative foreign reporting. She said, “We are in a massive trap as news broadcasters. What do we do? We are loosing our audience because we are telling the ugly truth. How do we respond to that? Do we start making the bad news sound good?”

The media’s metamorphosis has prompted aid agencies to create more of their own media bridging the gap between the two. DuBois expressed his belief that traditional forms of media were no longer adequate. “Being detached and neutral does not sell anymore, people want something authentic.”

When the audience joined in the debate, one member called for a separation between conflict relief and disaster aid stating that the public is far less engaged in the former.

Another pressing comparison was made between development versus emergency aid. Svoboda outlined the dilemma of aid agencies regarding this. “You pass from a crisis into this development and state building and you want to believe it and you ignore the facts that it’s not as stable as you want it to be,” she said. She also called for realism and modesty above all else in her field. “Their needs to be honesty about what can be done, and that’s not always easy because aid org need the money to do the work so how do you do that by selling a story.”

Another audience member observed that given the number of critical issues in today’s world the definition of what constitutes a ‘crisis’ is diminishing. Whether it continues to undermine itself is another question. In any case, the evening ended on a positive note with Snow heralding the current ‘golden age of journalism’. While there may not have been clear answers, the right questions had been asked.

You can watch and listen to the event again here: