Jacqueline Dalton
Publication Date
December 3, 2015

" doing Lifeline programming, media can play a role in bringing communities together, connecting affected people to each other and to aid workers and leaders. This can enable survivors to hold relief agencies to account, and also to communicate their own perspectives and needs and share solutions, giving them the motivation and confidence to rebuild their lives."

From BBC Media Action, this is a guide for the media on how to create programming that will help audiences affected by crises to survive, cope, and begin recovery. BBC Media Action's Lifeline is media programming that aims to alleviate people's suffering and help them survive and recover in the aftermath of a humanitarian disaster. (See Related Summaries, below). Lifeline programming involves sharing practical, actionable information that audiences can use to improve their immediate situation, and also providing encouragement and reassurance. Although different from conventional news reporting, the fundamental principles of good, responsible journalism remain the same. As with news reporting, if information is perceived as inaccurate or incomplete, broadcasters will lose their audiences' trust and could do more harm than good. Furthermore, "[a]ll the usual options and opportunities for creative and engaging programming are still there - in many cases, it's just about how you weave this crucial life-saving content into your reports or packages."

What kind of information do people affected by humanitarian crises need? Topics may include issues around safety, food, water, shelter, health, hygiene, trauma, and more. It is suggested that Lifeline programmers go further than simply making assumptions about what information people need. "You could, for example, invite them to contact you via your existing social media/telephone platforms to tell you what issues they most want to hear about." Although the information needs will vary according to the nature and stage of the crisis, some examples of general issues on which audiences are likely to need information are provided here.

It is noted that effective Lifeline programming requires regular contact and coordination with the relief effort. Ideas for working with the United Nations cluster system, as well as links to further information about and contacts for this system, are included in the guide.

Suggestions for communicating Lifeline information include:

  • Repeat key information regularly, especially in the early stages.
  • Present information in a simple, clear way.
  • Present audiences with solutions, instead of just focusing on problems. Give people positive examples and advice.
  • Where possible, present information as a call to action - too often, people faced with a humanitarian emergency are treated as passive recipients, who are expected to sit and wait for help. (Examples of calls to action are offered - e.g, "If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, visit your local health facility as soon as possible. Call XXX to find out where your nearest health facility is.")
  • Make sure the advice you share is realistic; talk to aid experts to find solutions that are actionable and appropriate for the context.
  • Encourage people to share the information with their friends, family, and community.
  • Provide contact points for further information.
  • Don't sensationalise. ("This must be the most devastating disaster ever!") Stick to the facts.
  • Consider those who may have special needs. Women, children, the elderly, and disabled people often face additional challenges in a humanitarian crisis.
  • In the chaos of a crisis, rumours can emerge. Double-check facts and say where they came from.
  • Create a sense of community. Invite plenty of contributions from audiences. People will suffer less if they feel they are not alone.
  • Use real-life examples of how people are coping to inspire others to do likewise.
  • Promote hope - simple things such as an encouraging, reassuring tone can make a difference.

It is noted that there are many ways in which a Lifeline programmer could inadvertently harm your audience, even though committed to helping them. Several scenarios are presented to help spark thinking about the content to be put out on air. Lifeline programming can run the risk of being seen as partisan, especially if the humanitarian crisis is conflict related. "Be scrupulously impartial and neutral about how you gather, deliver and target Lifeline information."

The most suitable format and amount of airtime allocated for Lifeline programming will depend on many factors, but one section of the guide presents some options, such as information bulletins, interviews, illustrated bulletins, spots or public service announcements (PSAs), magazine programmes (including phone-ins if appropriate), drama, and debate programmes. A case study from the April 2015 Nepal earthquake response (see also Related Summaries, below) illustrates some of these different formats and how they can be used to address different needs at various stages of a humanitarian emergency.

A section on interactivity stresses that Lifeline programming is not just about giving out information; it must also provide a space for those affected by the crisis to have a voice. Some options for interactivity are described, as are issues to consider. For instance, "[i]f you choose to use social networking sites, think carefully about how you will moderate the content. While such sites offer an extremely useful platform for people to communicate their needs, consider the risks of people posting incorrect information on your pages." A case study explores BBC Media Action's work with partners to do special Lifeline programming for Sierra Leone and Liberia during the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014-15, including magazine show Kick Ebola, radio drama, and PSAs. They used instant messenger app WhatsApp, Facebook, call-ins, and SMS [text messaging] services to exchange information with audiences, allowing people to support each other through the crisis and submit questions and contributions.

When it comes to conducting interviews for Lifeline, the guide presents examples of helpful and unhelpful questions for survivors and aid experts. "As you choose your interviewees and questions, remember that the end product in Lifeline programming is for, not about those who are suffering. Aim to include interviewees who can share useful information, or offer some kind of guidance or encouragement." Interviewing do's and don'ts are delineated.

Links to additional resources, as well as a bibliography and further background reading, conclude the guide.

From the author, on the Spanish edition of the manual (April 25, 2017): ""En tiempos de crisis, los medios y la comunicación pueden salvar vidas. Esta guía en Español de BBC Media Action explica como emisoras y periodistas pueden ayudar a su audiencia a sobrevivir y superar emergencias humanitarias: Lifeline: Manual de Producción

Por favor denle una mirada y compartanlo con sus contactos, especialmente con aquellos que se encuentren en zonas de riesgo."


Emails from Jacqueline Dalton to The Communication Initiative on November 30 2016 and April 26 2017. Image caption/credit: "Through Connexion Haiti, BBC World Service produced daily broadcasts sharing vital information in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2010." Lisa Robinson/BBC Media Action