Bad news: How does media coverage affect public attitudes toward aid?

A news stand. Photo by: greenzowie / CC BY-NC-ND

This is the first of a three-part series on the relationship between the United Kingdom media and aid, the result of a year-long special reporting project. In this article, Devex looks at the impact of media coverage on public attitudes toward aid, and the growth of antiaid sentiment. Watch out for parts two and three, coming soon.

LONDON — First, the bad news.

On a recent morning, the aid sector woke to the devastating news that employees of the humanitarian bastion Oxfam sexually exploited aid beneficiaries in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The revelation set off a domino effect, tumbling other aid organizations under the weight of their own reported abuses, or their connections to the Haiti claims. Urgent reforms and conversations about safeguarding and hiring practices began, as apologies and resignations were drafted and delivered. The scandal reaches far beyond the United Kingdom’s aid sector, but that community must deal with a particular challenge in the aftermath: Amid the plethora of honest reporting about the aid sector’s failings, there is a parallel news cycle of exaggeration, fiction, and political spin.

UK media and the great aid debate

For more than a year, Devex has dug into the tempestuous and politically charged relationship linking aid and the British media. Comprising more than 200 hours of interviews, this project brings together journalists, charity executives, advocacy professionals, government officials, frontline aid workers, and many more in a three-part series looking at the high-stakes dynamic between the British press and its aid industry.

Days after the U.K.’s Times newspaper broke the Oxfam story, the tabloid title The Sun, riding the wave of revelations, claimed that United Nations aid workers “raped 60,000 people,” citing a researcher who said the U.N. currently employs “3,300 paedophiles.”

The international press quickly rebutted the claim — which the researcher in question, a former U.N. employee, admitted was a guess — but U.K. aid professionals described such card-stacking from the right-wing British press as “par for the course.”

As the number of individual donors in the U.K. drops — between November 2013 and November 2017, the number of people donating to organizations focused on global poverty fell by a third, from 36 percent to 23 percent — some worry that exaggerated news coverage is having a significant impact on the public’s perception of aid.

“There’s nothing to excuse exploitation, it’s a problem that the whole sector needs to face and face honestly,” one anonymous Oxfam GB employee told Devex, on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak for the organization. “But when truth gets mixed with lies like this, and we see donations fall the way they have, it’s hard not to feel discouraged that the false news seems to carry the same weight as the real,” she said, adding “I think in the U.K. we’re getting used to it.”

A former journalist for the Daily Mail — a conservative tabloid with a critical stance on aid, and the U.K.’s most popular newspaper — who also asked to remain anonymous, agreed. “During my time there, it was a standing order from editors. One aid piece per week, no matter from where, as long as it was part of the 0.7 [percent budget].” Two years ago, a well-reviewed, impactful program on women’s health and empowerment in Ethiopia lost U.K. funding thanks to negative attention from the Mail.

The Daily Express, another popular newspaper, has been leading a campaign to scrap foreign aid completely.

At times like these, the aid sector reaches for comfort in the form of statistics. Despite U.K. tabloids’ readership — the Daily Mail, the Sun, and Daily Mirror combined daily print sales exceeded 3.8 million in 2016 — readers of antiaid newspapers typically don’t vote in line with tabloid headlines; in fact, most of them don’t vote at all. And despite frequently negative and often exaggerated coverage of aid, the British public’s keenness to eradicate global poverty has remained largely stable as far back as 1997. According to the 2016 Eurobarometer poll, 86 percent of U.K. respondents agree that helping people in developing countries is important.

Still, trust in those who deliver aid continues to fall. Concerns about corruption and accountability in the intermediaries of aid are growing, Will Tucker, a consultant and one of the researchers behind the Aid Attitudes Tracker, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded initiative to track shifts in attitudes toward aid in four countries, told Devex. Whether it’s the government, charities, or for-profit contractors, the last decade has seen a precipitous fall in trust.

“Only a third of the public trusts charities,” he said, with a decline from 39 percent to about 34 percent between 2013-2017, according to the AAT research. “And I say that, but this latest data was November 2017,” alluding to the potential impact of the Oxfam sexual abuse scandal in early February 2018. “I confidently predict that will decrease even further after recent weeks.”

But the narrative with which the sector comforts itself perseveres: The public still thinks aid is morally right, and readers of aid criticism don’t take political action against it.

One advocacy professional in a U.K. aid organization told Devex: “There is this acceptance, this naive belief in my organization that because the public still think helping poor people overseas is the right thing to do, that our funding and our programs and all the beneficiaries are safe.”

“First of all, that’s a bit condescending to the public, don’t you think? Second of all, yes everyone knows the Daily Mail is exaggerating its claims, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect the way you think; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get into people’s heads, day after day,” he said.

The professional suggested that the U.K. aid community isn’t fully acknowledging that the public increasingly associates aid institutions with corruption and a lack of accountability, and that it is no coincidence those associations “line up perfectly with the Daily Mail and the Express’ vendetta on aid.”

“It’s not some coincidence. This is hurting us. The way people are voting or not voting doesn’t matter,” he said. “When was the last referendum on aid?”

Capturing the complexity

Just because public trust in charities is falling doesn’t necessarily mean newspapers are the cause — so let’s look at what we can measure. It is widely understood that the way people absorb information isn’t always entirely conscious. Recent studies find that while people might identify aid and tackling global poverty as personal “core values,” they are increasingly disassociating the institutions and organizations that deliver aid from those deeply-held beliefs, often thanks to media influences.

Gail Steeden, co-founder and partner of Humankind Research, a specialist qualitative research agency, recently conducted a study of British tabloid readers. The findings, she said, suggest that the public’s attitude toward aid is indeed “highly” influenced by the media, even if we “don’t yet know when that influence starts affecting their core beliefs or tipping into behaviors.”

“There are quite a lot who responded to our first surveys saying, ‘I don’t agree with any of the views I read in the Daily Mail actually,’ and yet, when asked about [their associations with charities] they played back the same messages, they tell back the same stories again and again,” she said.

“What we saw happening is that people are dissociating message and messenger,” she said. “We heard comments like, ‘It all feels pretty pointless,’ ‘We’ve been seeing the same images since Band-Aid and nothing’s changed,’ and ‘I don’t know where the money is going,’” she said.

Steeden also pointed out that Humankind’s study intentionally filtered out “anyone who knew anyone connected to the international development sector,” she said, “because we’ve seen that’s actually something that really changes this dynamic.”

Yet what was also startling was that when Humankind conducted a different study asking the same questions to young, non-Mail readers, “they were saying the same things.”

“In a complete blind listening, you would probably think they were the same group,” she said.

This runs counter to many of the findings behind the Aid Attitudes Tracker, namely that young people are more likely to be supportive of aid. So how did the research uncover seemingly opposite findings? Steeden pointed to an important distinction, that “support for aid” is not necessarily the same as an “association with aid.” While young people may be more likely to claim a concern for global poverty as a core belief, they are still absorbing the cascade of often-exaggerated claims about corruption, abuse, and inflated salaries, often through more expedient forms of media.

What do tabloid and nontabloid readers share that could bring them to the same, albeit half-felt association with aid?

“One of the things we hypothesize that these two audiences have in common is their reliance on short-form media,” she said. In other words, in today’s social media heavy environment, one doesn’t need to subscribe to tabloids in order to be exposed to exaggerated news headlines.

“Whether it’s a Daily Mail headline or Twitter, it’s not doing much for how deeply they’re getting engaged with it. It’s not doing much to provoke them to think about the issues in any detail, things are washing in and washing over very fast,” Steeden said.

This brought Steeden and the Humankind team to another hypothesis. These short, snappy media messages — whether tweets, headlines or scrolled-over sidebars — tend to stick when there’s a “vacuum of information about aid,” Steeden said.

These media formats “trade in shock and outrage,” she said. “There’s two things these seemingly very disparate audiences have in common: There’s a knowledge vacuum, they’re not really thinking about the sector. These negative cynical comments we heard from both sides, they slide in unnoticed. They don’t really question how they got there, they haven’t really examined them, they just slip into their consciousness, and when they’re asked where they heard it from, it’s always the media,” she said.

These attitudes are “not necessarily resonating with their deeper core values,” she added. “It’s just things people say. And if something doesn’t resonate with your core values, it doesn’t necessarily make you behave differently.”

Via Facebook

Rationalizing indifference

Dr. Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson, senior lecturer in political behavior at University College London and another researcher behind the Aid Attitudes Tracker, agreed to an extent. The tabloid media doesn’t yet seem to be directly impacting the public’s core beliefs or behavior, she said. Notably, the less than 10 percent of people who are strongly for or against aid tend to remain that way. But media coverage is impacting the way those people in the middle talk about aid at a superficial level.

“Look at the corruption example,” vanHeerde-Hudson told Devex. “If you do a focus group, it doesn’t take 10 seconds for corruption to be mentioned. Why? Because that’s the thing that’s at the top of people’s minds. It’s the thing they can access most quickly,” she said.

“It puts the information out there, it lets people access it in a different way. But whether the media are actually determining those attitudes, we don’t have any evidence for that,” she said.

Faced with a dearth of information about how aid works, and feeling fairly indifferent to the enterprise as a result, the exaggerated claims in some elements of the media could simply be giving people an excuse to disengage, Tucker explained.

“The [public] might be, and in some cases I think they are definitely, using the inefficacy argument to postrationalize their position,” he said. “You don’t want to appear uncaring, and so instead of saying, ‘well I just don’t care as much about people overseas as I do about people here,’ instead you say, ‘I don’t support aid because it’s ineffective.’”

That begs a question: When do these superficially-held associations, drawn from the media, translate into behavior such as voting or withholding donations? At what point, if at all, does an onslaught of negative media attention, or a well-placed campaign, turn indifference into a core belief for or against aid?

Hudson-vanHeerde said that those with an entrenched position on aid — those who are “totally engaged” or “totally disengaged” with it — are probably not moving. “We need to be honest with ourselves, that really strong and ambitious attempts to get [those]  people on board and engaged are probably naive, and probably a waste of time and money,” she told Devex.

But the bulk of those polled, she said — between 40 and 50 percent — are somewhere in the middle, and they can be moved. This is “the reason to go after them, and they’re the biggest group in the public.”

Architects of our undoing?

Humankind Research decided to try challenging some of these loosely-held beliefs in an attempt to find out at what point they shift.

“We thought, OK, if it’s superficial, surely we can just tell them it’s not true,” Steeden said. But “it doesn’t seem like that’s really the case. People said, ‘Well I don’t really trust you, chugger [street fundraiser] on the street who’s challenging this view, which OK I haven’t really thought about, but now ... I’m going to start defending it.’ And that’s the dangerous point.”

Steeden, Tucker and vanHeerde-Hudson all agreed: There’s a fine line between making “the moral argument” — which data shows is the most successful strategy for eliciting proaid behaviors such as donating, advocating, and sharing articles — and “moralizing.”

The argument about a “moral obligation to give aid, that we should give help if we can, this is a very strong strategy,” said vanHeerde-Hudson. It works in other countries too, but is particularly successful in the U.K.

“The only caveat is ... people don’t like to be preached to, or to be moralized to. So to say to somebody, ‘you should think it’s morally right to give aid to people,’ that’s all of a sudden when you start getting pushback,” she said.

“There is a general acceptance for this notion that it is the right thing to do ... but you have to tread a bit carefully with that.”

For decades now, aid and advocacy organizations have been toeing that fine line. Steeden suggested that by persisting over the long term with the same types of moral or moralizing messages — the same urgency, the same troubling images — the sector may have been setting up the Daily Mail for success, laying the groundwork for their campaign to trigger perceptions of a “lack of progress,” outrage and a willingness to “cut down” a sector that has for years depicted itself and its work as unrealistically simple.

“We hear this time and time again; they think people out there are professing to be morally superior to them, which [they are] probably not, but that’s how they’re feeling,” Steeden said. “And feeling morally inferior, they’re feeling actually that their self-worth is being shaken by all these people supposedly doing good.”

Enter tabloid claims of “outrageous” charity salaries, rampant corruption, and “cash rushed out the door” by the U.K. Department for International Development, an agency ranked the most accountable aid donor in the world.

“No one loves anything more than ... knocking the halo off an angel. It’s a brilliant way to even the stakes and a moral equalizer to be able to shout ‘hypocrisy,’” she said.

She added that, as a sector, international development organizations are being drawn in to a critical debate about inequality and economic anxiety.

Another Daily Mail journalist, who also asked to remain anonymous, explained how the media can capitalize on this. “Based on whatever people are upset about at the time — bin collection or whatever — I basically just go into DevTracker and find something to compare it to [in terms of funding levels], because people are already upset about a lack of funding for something that relates directly to them ... All you have to do is draw that comparison to some use of aid that [sounds] questionable,” they said.

Likewise, coverage of charity salaries seems to trigger a deeply-felt sense of inequality, Steeden said. No matter the sector, she pointed out that a “six-figure” salary “is the mark of the elite, it’s a sign of the political or the business establishment.”

“It feels like this decimal benchmark of six figures is the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” she said. “It really plays into the divisions in society that we’re seeing. It feels like charities are feeling less and less ‘of the people,’ to the people.”

Tucker argued that more than building resentment about inequality, outreach and communications efforts simply don’t show those audiences that “they are contributing to change, not nearly as frequently as we show them enduring need, and we particularly show those audiences enduring need through our fundraising marketing.”

He said these unvarying messages of despair “creates a sense of, ‘I’ve been giving for years, maybe only a few times a year, or relatively small amounts, but I feel I’m being constantly asked to make a difference even though I’m not seeing any change.’”

“I think the media then increases that sense, because the media focus on more negative reasons about the ‘global south,’ for perfectly good journalistic reasons, but that builds on that sense that nothing’s changed,” Tucker said.

For vanHeerde-Hudson, though, the critical question of how “core beliefs” form — how those attitudes become entrenched and whether, with the right persuasion, they can be nudged — remains unanswered.

“We’re doing an evaluation of that … That’s one small way we can try and see how well media messaging, largely media messaging, gets picked up and absorbed by the public,” she said.

“But it doesn’t take us back to the beginning … How do people form their attitudes, and how do they come to their position on aid and on development in the first instance?” she asked. “I think that’s a much deeper step backward.”

In part two of Devex’s series on the U.K. media’s great aid debate, coming soon, we’ll explore how media coverage is affecting aid work. What are the financial and operational implications for an organization that finds itself the subject of a tabloid expose?

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.