Monday, July 23, 2012

Media disasters?

What influence does popular media coverage have on the allocation of humanitarian aid following a natural disaster?

In his excellent short films (see here and here) Arno Waizenegger documents the responses of both the international aid community and the international media to the tsunami that devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh in December 2004. Donors pledged so much money (about US$8 billion) to the region that one aid agency - Medecins sans Frontieres - took the unprecedented step of announcing that they would not be accepting any further donations for that cause. The tsunami also became a major international "news event". Was the massive aid response directly attributable to the intense media coverage of the event? Waizenegger points to another 'silent disaster' - a civil conflict that claimed 15,000 lives - that had been ongoing in the same region for 29 years prior to the tsunami, but received little of either international media attention - in part because the government had previously banned foreign journalists from entering the areas affected by the conflict - or humanitarian assistance for its victims.

Of course, the 2004 tsunami was of such a scale - around 170,000 were killed in Aceh alone - that it was almost certain to receive international attention both from the media and from aid organizations. The question is whether relatively marginal disasters are more likely to receive humanitarian aid if given media attention. In their elegant paper on this topic "News droughts, news floods and U.S. disaster relief", Thomas Eisensee and David Stromberg find evidence that U.S. disaster relief depends on whether or not a disaster occurs during periods when there are other newsworthy events - such as the Olympic Games - that effectively crowd out media coverage of the disaster.

This is the topic of my latest research. I use newspaper archives to quantify the amount of media attention given to a particular disaster event. Based on data gathered from the Washington Post archive, for disasters occurring in developing countries between 1995 and 2010 (a sample of around 3,400 events), there appears to be some distinct patterns of media coverage across regions and disaster types. Earthquakes and storms appear to generate the most media coverage on average (with about 0.6 news articles per person killed), floods generate considerably fewer stories (around 0.14 articles per person killed), while news coverage for drought episodes is an order of magnitude lower again (at just 0.03 articles per person killed). Part of the reason for the relative lack of attention on droughts may be due to the nature of such events, given that they are slowly evolving crises as opposed to dramatic lightning strikes. This also has the added effect of making it difficult to define start and end dates for a drought event. As a consequence the search window (from two days prior to the event onset, up to 40 days after the event) is unlikely to cover the entire drought 'event' - given that some drought episodes can last months or even years - and therefore may not capture the total amount of media attention that the event receives.

Turning to media coverage by region, again we find a distinctive pattern in the data. Disasters that occur in Latin America and the Caribbean generate the most news coverage (with an average of around 0.6 news articles per person killed), those occurring in either the East Asia Pacific or Europe and Central Asia regions generate slightly fewer stories (on average around 0.4 per person killed), while South Asia (with just 0.16 articles per person killed), the Middle East North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa regions (each with just 0.11 articles per person killed) are relatively neglected. Of course these figures are simple averages and take no account of the relative distribution of disaster types across regions. Therefore the relative neglect of Africa could be a reflection of the relative lack of media attention on drought events, for example. A more structured analysis may uncover whether or not these patterns represent a genuine tendency for some disaster types and regions to be relatively neglected and if such media biases have any influence on the political decision to grant humanitarian aid relief to a disaster affected region.

The research will also extend to archive searches in major news publications of other countries (starting for linguistic convenience with Anglophone countries - US, Canada, Australia, UK and perhaps Ireland - reflecting the home bias of the author) to investigate whether the media's influence on relief decisions differs across countries. 

This is early stage research and comments or suggestions are most welcome.

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