Publication Date


This 17-page article shares CARMA International research examining western media coverage of 6 humanitarian disasters: the earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir (October 8 2005), Hurricane Stanley (October 1 2005), Hurricane Katrina (August 23 2005), the Indian Ocean earthquake/Tsunami (December 26 2004), the earthquake in Bam, Iran (December 26 2003), and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan (since February 2003). The purpose was to ascertain what factors drive western media interest by investigating the relationship between media coverage and national interest to gain a sense of the cultural and economic tenor of relationships between the disaster region and those nations writing about it.

Specifically, this report analyses 64 daily and weekly publications in 9 countries (United Kingdom (UK), Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Pan-Europe, USA, and Australia). A total of 1,967 articles from 43 national and pan-national daily newspapers, 4 Sunday editions, and 17 weekly newspapers and news magazines were researched. The period of analysis for each disaster ranges from 2 days prior to the incident to 10 weeks thereafter, with the exception of Darfur, where there is no definite incident to mark the beginning.

Each of the 6 humanitarian disasters analysed is discussed in detail; in general, Hurricane Katrina obtained by far the highest volume of coverage (it was discussed in 1,035 articles, representing a 50% share of voice, or SoV). By contrast, the Asian Tsunami gained a 25% SoV, while the crisis in Darfur generated a 15% share of the coverage. The 3 remaining disasters combined gained only 10% of the voice (allowing for rounding): the Kashmir and Bam earthquakes obtained 5% and 4% of mentions respectively, while the SoV for Hurricane Stanley was 1%. Regional differences are analysed; overall, Anglo-Saxon media (USA, UK, Pan Europe, Australia) tend to devote far more column inches to disasters than continental European markets.

In short, the research finds that "Western self-interest is the pre-condition for significant coverage of a humanitarian crisis"; there appears to be no link between the scale of a disaster and media interest in story. For instance, of all the disasters, Stanley and Katrina suffered the fewest deaths, but Katrina got far more attention in global media than any other humanitarian disaster studied. Further, according to CARMA, there is a clear correlation between the perceived economic impact of a disaster on western markets and the quantity of media coverage: Where there is most economic interest (Katrina - USA), there is most coverage; where there is least, there is least interest (Stanley - Guatemala). To cite one example, 17% of the articles on Katrina focus on its economic issues, the greatest for any disaster. In contrast, the Hurricane Stanley emergency had "no obvious significant economic or political interest. Consequently, there is virtually no coverage of any kind (25 in total) beyond the first few days, or coverage that focused on the humanitarian response."

Reflecting on these and other findings, CARMA concludes that "Politics determines the timing, level of interest and story angle, not the humanitarian issues." For example, during the first 18 months of the Darfur disaster, only 73 articles were written globally. However, since 2 separate campaigns for more forceful UN-led intervention, "significantly more attention has been devoted to the role of external governments in attempting to force a solution (29 per cent of articles) than to the effect of the crisis on the people and area of Darfur (21 per cent). However dreadful their suffering has been, it weighed less in the balance than the politics." Further, "An obvious corollary to the political and economic self-interest of Western markets in disasters is an often tasteless egocentric tendency in reporting or a manipulation of disasters for selfish ends."

CARMA concludes by offering several strategic notes for those experiencing and/or reporting on humanitarian disasters:

  • It may not be wise for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to get politicians and stars involved first to drive the political angle - "Politicians can be useful in driving coverage, but will do so for their own reasons and are thus unreliable
    as a foundation for developing sustainable interest."
  • Consider the perspective through which the story may be judged - "It is clear from the data that the four key motivating factors for western markets are: Global economic interest, national political advantage, involvement of westerners and a 'feel-good' from giving to a good cause. This is not to say that NGO's should become cynical, but that societal realities must be taken into account when planning communication and fundraising strategies. Relentlessly pursuing the public and the media with streams of disaster victim images is unlikely to be most helpful in sustaining interest, indeed there is evidence of the contrary...."
  • Call the politicians to account - "By co-ordinating with the media a very public and global, quarterly review of funds delivered versus promised, NGO's can keep a high political pressure on governments to fulfil their commitments and provide a story with both a political and economically relevant angle to publishers and readers of news."

Email from Moncef Bouhafa to The Communication Initiative on July 11 2006.