From pictures to policy – Reporting Famine and Other Disasters

Seminar Report

The media make a lot of errors covering famine and other disasters, argues Professor Suzanne Franks, author of a recent book called Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media (Hurst).

 “The media play a huge part in shaping these disasters,” she said. “Far away disasters only exist to the extent the media report them to us.”

As an example, Franks showed Michael Buerk's famous BBC news report of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. Franks has identified four fallacies in disaster reporting, and she says all can be found in Buerk's report.

The first fallacy is that the famine is reported as a sudden news event. But Franks argues that famine doesn't happen overnight, and that was also the case in Ethiopia. “Nobody wanted to write about it in 1982, when there was already plenty of evidence” she said.

The second fallacy is that famine is presented as a result of drought.  According to Franks it is normally a political phenomenon, not a natural disaster: it is often about certain parts of the population losing their entitlement to food.

She referred to the Indian economist Amartya Sen, who has pointed out that there is a close relationship between democracy and a free press. There is not much famine in countries with a free press.

Franks also noted that it was very convenient to portray the famine as a result of drought for the Ethiopian dictator at the time, Mengistu Haile Mariam, as it absolves the government of responsibility. The Marxist regime in Addis Ababa was fighting two huge guerrilla wars that received much less coverage.

The third fallacy is that official aid is often not what it seen to be. Aid is many times given for political reasons, not humanitarian ones.

Documents from the time seen by Franks show that Downing Street wanted to intervene in Ethiopia, but was very particular in how they wanted the government to be seen. They were keen to have pictures of the British air force dropping food parcels. That makes great images, and also Britain did not want to be more politically involved in Ethiopia. But according to Franks this was, and is, the most expensive, wasteful way of sending aid.

The fourth fallacy of much disaster reporting is that the political context is left out of the narrative.

Often aid agencies play down the root causes of a famine, Franks says, as this might mean less money being donated by the public.

It is also significant that none of the starving Ethiopians were interviewed in Buerk's report. The report contained what Franks called what certainly at that time were then the ‘standard ingredients’ for reporting a disaster: images of a starving child, a feeding centre, a foreign aid worker and a talking reporter.

Written by Mikal Hem.

Professor Suzanne Franks, City University, London, spoke at the Business and Practice of Journalism seminar on Wednesday 4th June 2014.