How Should Humanitarian Crises Be Reported?

A cameraman. The current attention to the East African drought would likely be the region's "five minutes of fame on the global news agenda," according to a Kenya-based journalist. Photo by: Ryan Morrison / CC BY-NC-SA

It is a good thing that the East African drought is getting the world’s attention as more international media outlets report about what’s happening there, but it’s also “frustrating” that the current attention would likely be the region’s “five minutes of fame on the global news agenda,” a Kenya-based journalist observes.

Kenyan media have been reporting about the impact of the drought since the beginning of 2011, but the stories were not picked up by international media until recently, Katy Migiro writes in a blog post in AlertNet, where she details her observations of foreign journalists visiting Kenya to cover what the United Nations and several world leaders have described as the worst humanitarian crisis to hit the Horn of Africa for decades.

“All journalistic ethics went out the window as we raced around Dadaab, chasing after the head of the United Nations’ refugee agency, Antonio Guterres,” Migiro says, referring to the largest refugee camp in Kenya. “There wasn’t time for sensitivity.”

Migiro points out that most international media reports do not even capture the real story, instead focusing on compelling images, particularly of skinny babies, which could evoke emotions and raise money for relief efforts.

“The real untold story is that the skinny babies are always there. It’s just that there are a few less of them,” Migiro says.

Debate about the portrayal of human suffering often surfaces amid humanitarian crises and in the aftermath of natural disasters. Some parties would argue that it is necessary to use the most striking images of human suffering to illustrate the response needed in a crisis, while others would say there should be limits to what can be shown in order to protect the victims’ dignity.

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About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.