Media Misrepresentation of Humanitarian Crises

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SEATTLE, Washington — Given the widespread media coverage of wars and geopolitics in recent times, the international community has become largely dependent on news outlets. Yet, over the years, competition and compassion fatigue from viewers over long-term crises also seems to have taken its toll. The dissemination of knowledge is important in the global effort to fight poverty as there is often a very close link between media attention, public perception and, by extension, foreign aid, mobilization and donations.

Forms of Misrepresentation

Media misrepresentation of humanitarian crises can take on several different forms from insufficient coverage and lack of diversity to biased accounts and even fake news. These often exist because media coverage does not always encompass all aspects of world news. In fact, 70 percent of people surveyed felt that media misrepresentation of humanitarian crises did not accurately cover serious issues. In his recent visit to the UAE, Pope Francis also warned against the false messages propagated by the media and the distortion of the truth in their accounts.

As such, there seems to be an inordinate amount of time dedicated to disaster stories when compared with reporting about the death toll and destruction caused by a certain conflict. This could be a result of the media focusing on short term problems as opposed to those with more lasting issues. Misrepresentation of humanitarian crises can also result in a greater number of stereotypes and typecasting, particularly of war-torn countries. For instance, the developing world is always seen as vulnerable to disaster or crises.

Politicizing World News

Humanitarian and foreign aid is slowly becoming an inextricably politicized concept as countries compete with one another on the world stage for unforeseen motives. Often, certain humanitarian crises get more coverage and attention than others as well simply because of geopolitical or regional interests of certain countries or groups. For instance, Ebola became a widely reported healthcare epidemic largely due to the impact it could potentially have on western countries.

The portrayal of the Gaza crisis by the U.S. media has raised a lot of criticism in recent years as focus has rested on Israel and ignored the plight of the Palestinians living in the area. Media misrepresentation of humanitarian crises also has the unfortunate consequence of stirring up unnecessary sensationalization. Exaggerated accounts may also give rise to the propagation of misinformation and incorrect facts, particularly the news about the Yemen Crisis and the involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A majority of the time, news coverage may primarily focus on an international audience and may overlook viewpoints of specific concerned groups and individuals in the process. In 2018, the UNHCR published The CARE report entitled ‘Suffering in Silence,’ which highlights that many humanitarian crises often don’t receive sufficient coverage. For example, crises in the Central African Republic, Chad, Vietnam and Peru seem to rarely make the headlines.

Potential Solutions to the Problem

As the modern mediascape continues to be dynamic, it is essential to understand war and poverty and approach them rationally. Addressing today’s often ‘forgotten emergencies’ and crises like those in Yemen, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and many more can be achieved with the accurate presentation of facts coupled with a thorough review of the historical and socio-political context of the countries.

Additionally, coverage must also go beyond the sensationalism it has become and provide more holistic and engaging news and features with greater interaction with different sources and subjects. Anecdotes and feature pieces about individuals and families are very effective in bringing about greater degrees of inclusivity in mainstream media. Such stories were written during the Syrian crisis to highlight the progress and resettlement of individuals.

With greater objectivity and good journalism, media misrepresentation of humanitarian crises could be much improved, helping the international community to better understand and participate in international discourse and contribute in their own way.

Shivani Ekkanath

Photo: Flickr

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