CARE reveals 2017's most underreported humanitarian crises — so how can we shape media coverage?

Which disasters were the most under-reported in 2017? See our interactive visualization.

CANBERRA — What makes a humanitarian crisis worthy of media attention? It is a question CARE International asked when analyzing more than 1.2 million global media reports on 40 natural disasters and conflicts affecting at least a million people. In their new report, Suffering in Silence, they not only identify the 10 most underreported humanitarian crises of 2017 but the reasons behind it — with lack of humanitarian and media access, competing natural disasters, and conflicting crises among the key reasons for certain humanitarian stories to fly largely under the radar of public and political attention.

The most underreported humanitarian crises of 2017

Topping the list of underreported crises in 2017 is the ongoing humanitarian crisis facing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Despite the nation receiving mass media attention for political tensions and weapons testing, only 51 reports — 0.004 percent of reports analyzed — focused on the humanitarian crisis within the nation’s borders.

Today, 18 million people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are food insecure, with 2 in 5 people undernourished. Droughts in 2017 have pushed the crisis into extreme danger, with urgent need for nutritious food, medical and health services, and water and sanitation facilities. But the inability of both humanitarian organizations and media to enter the country means scarce information is coming out — and attention is instead focused on military and political clashes that are played out for the world’s attention.

“The humanitarian suffering in North Korea is extreme,” Rachel Routley, from CARE Australia’s Emergency Response Unit, told Devex. “We know that it is happening, and just like humanitarian suffering in any other place and situation, the people on the ground who are hungry and do not have access to enough food are suffering in exactly the same way as people in other places that don’t have as oppressive a regime. So for them, we do have to broaden the narrative beyond what is going on at the very high level politically.”

Second most underreported is ongoing drought, and food and water shortages affecting 3.6 million people in Eritrea — with limited ability for humanitarian organizations and media to access those affected a key reason once more for the lack of coverage.

The crisis in this East African country has been ongoing for two years, and women and children are dangerously undernourished. With migration routes limited and extremely dangerous — refugees are threatened by rape, torture, kidnapping or wreckage at sea — the stories are not coming out of the nation. And in 2017, only 69 reports discussed the crisis.

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Ongoing conflicts and displacement, combined with natural disasters, are a continual story for Burundi, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Lake Chad Basin, and Central African Republic — affecting more than 37 million people combined. But the geographic isolation of these countries, combined with the ongoing nature of violence, draws media attention away from these nations that desperately need external support.

And despite 1.5 million people being affected by Typhoon Doksuri within Vietnam last September, and 1.7 million people affected by floods in Peru last March, these disasters were largely overlooked by media due to conflicting natural disasters, or the regions being accepted as disaster prone.

“It comes back to a joint responsibility between media and aid organizations on this coverage,” Routley said. “We need to try to convey these stories in a meaningful way and find an interesting angle that can garnish attention. We know that when there are many, many natural disasters over and over, that decreases the community’s resilience and capacity to respond and deal with the impacts. Instead of becoming blasé and exhausted by them, we actually need to ramp up the information and the support we provide when there are many disasters in a row.”

How can we draw more attention to these humanitarian crises?

For humanitarian responders, including CARE, media coverage provides an important opportunity to engage the world in the crisis unfolding and generate much-needed political and financial support.

“We know that a single photo can shake the world’s consciousness and galvanize the global community into taking action,” Routley said.

Meanwhile, increasing attacks on freedom of the press combined with violence against journalists and media workers are successfully preventing access and coverage of some humanitarian crises, as demonstrated with the underreporting of humanitarian crises facing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Eritrea.

Humanitarian agencies, CARE suggest, provide an important avenue to help media with safe passage in crisis zones. But the international community, they say, also needs to hold to account governments blocking access to media.

To improve media coverage, humanitarian organizations themselves have an important role to play in “thinking outside the box” to enable access to media.

“In Yemen recently, we have been making videos of our staff and using our own internal media and communications people to be able to be able to produce some content,” Routley explained. “This can then be used by journalists who may have difficulty in accessing the country. But in a place like North Korea, this is still difficult.”

For the media themselves, the report encourages greater engagement with local actors — including local media and aid organizations — who can potentially collaborate on stories to provide them with on-the-ground knowledge of the crisis situation.

“It’s crucial to link in with people who have the deep understanding of the local coverage for in-depth reporting and understanding of the crises,” Routley said.

A joint responsibility of government, media, and aid organizations

According to Routley, it is a combined responsibility of humanitarian organizations, media and government to communicate on humanitarian crises — both ongoing and emerging. And there are recent examples of how this can be done successfully.

In November, the Australian government supported an appeal for the Rohingya crisis, matching donations up to $5 million Australian dollars ($4 million). This was combined with an NGO campaign and media coverage through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“CARE Australia will be releasing a report on this in the coming months,” Routley said. “But the basic analysis, which we have already done, showed the joint fundraising opportunity was extremely beneficial. In short, we saw an increase both in terms of raising the profile of the response as well as funding.”

While political attention can be an important factor in generating media coverage, the preference is for humanitarian and media attention to shape political agendas — not the other way around.

“It’s a feedback loop between media and aid organizations, knowing that many of these organizations have political solutions,” Routhley explained. “And this is part of this reason why we have an ethical responsibility to be reporting on these situations more — we know that it will put pressure on the political system worldwide to develop a political solution.”

As part of this strategy, Routley said humanitarian organizations have a role in adequately funding communications and media to allow them to capture content and be creative in partnerships with media.

Utilizing the report to engage conversation

The new Suffering in Silence report follows a 2016 report, with another expected next year.

Internally, Routley explained that the report is important for planning and responses.

“We are operation in eight out of the 10 locations captured in the report,” she said. “It is a good reminder to our country offices to focus on reaching out to media and thinking creatively on how to get the story out — particularly in Sudan, where we have been operational for decades and the longevity of the crisis is losing the media attention.”

In the main offices, the report is being used to better engage media and understand how they can collaborate to communicate emerging and ongoing crises more effectively. And for regions like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Eritrea, drawing attention to the crises is an important step in enabling humanitarian intervention.

To find out more about the ten most underreported humanitarian crises, interact with our Devex produced Tableau interactive.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.