Photo by Julien Harneis

Humanitarian emergencies are newsworthy in many ways, from the compelling stories of human tragedy to the enormous economic impacts to wide-ranging geopolitical considerations. However, the news media is not simply a passive conduit for neutral information – perceptions and responses can be influenced by the character of the reporting. Accurate and timely reporting, or the lack of it, can determine levels of donor funding and even agency operational decisions.

Indeed, as travel becomes more and more accessible, journalists and cameramen are often at the scene of a disaster before the first humanitarian workers arrive. Will you be prepared to answer questions about your role, your agency’s agenda and past performance, or the nature of local reaction to the emergency?

In order to work effectively in support of your organization’s mission, and to minimize the potential for disruption or inaccurate messaging, it is useful to know some basic information about the public information function and about the role of the news media in emergency situations.

At the HELP Course in Honolulu, you will be given a briefing on media relations, and an opportunity to work with a Public Information specialist to gain a working understanding of press relations in the emergency relief context.

Please read through the materials provided here for an overview of media relations in emergencies, and some sources for further background on this area.

Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book

Published in December 2007 and edited by Nalaha Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha. This is a multi-author book that discusses how information, education and communication can help create disaster resilient communities across the Asia Pacific region, home to half of humanity. It also takes a critical look at the communication lessons of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, and explores the role of good communications before, during and after disasters.

Disaster Communication: A resource kit for media

This book aims to improve the South Asian media’s coverage of disasters. It attempts to do this in two ways: first, by providing the media with a better understanding of disaster and their causes; second, by showing how to adopt a more progressive approach to gathering and presenting news that could stimulate more effective action by policy makers and the public.

The media has an important role to play in protecting people from disasters, by educating the public about risks and hazards, transmitting forecasts and warnings, and challenging policy makers and disaster managers to improve their performance. There has been a great deal of criticism of the media’s treatment of disasters notably its focus on the consequences of disasters rather than its causes, and stereotype and erroneous portrayal of disaster-struck communities as passive victims.

As well as discussing these problems and related problems in some detail the book offers practical guidelines to reporters and editors on more intelligent approach to disaster news gathering and how media coverage can play a more socially responsible role in help to reduce disasters’ impact. Several case studies also support the discussion.

The book may be ordered from the Duryog Nivaran website.

Journalists & Humanitarian Relief Coverage: Towards New Understandings

This report was conducted with support from the Fritz Institute and Reuters Foundation’s Alertnet. Press relations personnel from humanitarian relief organizations were surveyed, as were journalists who cover humanitarian activities. A broad picture of the dynamics of media coverage of efforts emerged, with a number of useful and sometimes provocative insights presented. Other recommendations for improving relief coverage are included.

Media Coverage and Charitable Giving After the 2004 Tsunami.

Philip H. Brown & Jessica H. Minty.

Media coverage of humanitarian crises is widely believed to influence charitable giving, yet this assertion has received little empirical scrutiny. Using Internet donations after the 2004 tsunami as a case study, this study by Brown and Minty shows that media coverage of disasters has a dramatic impact on donations to relief agencies.

Humanitarian Crises: testing the ‘CNN effect’

Article by Gorm Rye Olsen, Nils Cartensen and Kristian Hoyen
Forged Migration Review, Issue 16, January 2003

A critical look at whether the volume of humanitarian response depends upon the intensity of media coverage.

Western media coverage of Humanitarian Disasters.

CARMA January 2006.

This article by CARMA analyzes the media coverage in a range of western countries of the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in the USA, earthquake Bam in Iran, Hurricane Stanley in Mexico, the ongoing conflict in Darfur, Africa, and the most recent earthquake in Kashmir. The goal of the analysis is to ascertain what factors drive western media interest, whether these are perceived equally and if not, why not.

University of Hawaii at Manoa; Center of Excellence in DMHA; ICRC

Contact Information

Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance
University of Hawai'i at Manoa
2424 Maile Way, Saunders Hall 118
Honolulu, HI 96822