The challenge of reporting neglected crises

Mark Galloway IBT Director 20th June 2024

Patrick Gathara, senior editor, inclusive storytelling at The New Humanitarian


Earlier this week, IBT brought together a panel of journalists and NGOs to talk about how to improve media coverage of some of the world’s neglected crises such as Sudan, Myanmar, Syria and Yemen. IBT Director, Mark Galloway, reflects on the discussion.

Sorcha O’Callaghan, Director of the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI and our co-host, kicked off with a stark statement. ‘Neglect has become the new normal’ she told us. And there is much evidence to support Sorcha’s conclusion. A recent article in The Economist, Sudan: the war the world forgot, highlighted the lack of media coverage of Sudan, currently the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Data provided by Chartbeat, an analytics firm, showed that news coverage of Sudan from the past year peaked in April 2023, at the start of the civil war, with approximately 7,000 new articles published by around 3,000 media companies in 70 countries. Since the beginning of 2024 it has averaged just 600 per month. By comparison, coverage of the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine has not dipped below 100,000 stories per month. 

The Chartbeat data also showed that in the same period there had been virtually no coverage of Myanmar or Syria. Yemen had some coverage when the Houthis started attacking ships in the Red Sea. But coverage has now fallen sharply.

The media says it is working hard to cover neglected crises

The journalists on the panel refuted Sorcha’s claim. They were working hard, they said, to ensure that neglected crises received coverage. Tim Singleton, head of international news at Sky News, spoke about the huge logistical difficulties – and expense – of sending his correspondent Stuart Ramsay to Myanmar last year. And he reminded us that Sky’s Africa correspondent, Yousra Elbagir, had made several reporting trips to Sudan. ‘There’s very much a commitment to go to these places’ he said. ‘It can be done but it’s tough’.

Tracy McVeigh, editor, global development at The Guardian concurred. However, a major challenge, she said, was engaging audiences with this content. She gave the example of a series of articles on Myanmar that she had commissioned which failed to generate any audience interest. Whilst she remains committed to covering Myanmar, the lack of audience interest is clearly a source of frustration.

The panel: (left to right) Simon Murphy, Tracy McVeigh, Tim Singleton, Sara Pantuliano, Patrick Gathara, Halima Begum and Mark Galloway. Photo: Henry Roberts

One solution is to use more local journalists

One solution to the challenge and expense of access is to use more local journalists. Tracy described how she is working with a group of female journalists in Somalia. They are able to report on the humanitarian crisis in a richer and more authentic way. 

Both Tracy and Tim talked positively about the benefits of working in a much more globalised media environment. They could now reach global audiences and this gave them more scope to report in different ways. ‘We’ve got a big duty’ Tracy said ‘to look at things through a more international lens’.

Critics say the media must do better

A counter view came from Sara Pantuliano, Chief Executive of ODI and a former head of the humanitarian policy group. Sara was clear that the media must do better. The crisis in Sudan needed sustained coverage to engage audiences. Only with this sort of coverage and engagement would politicians feel pressured to act. She contrasted the crisis in Darfur in 2003-4 which had been headline news day after day with the present crisis which is receiving virtually no coverage. ‘The problem goes much deeper’ she told us. ‘There’s a responsibility on journalists and humanitarians to show the complexity of the crisis and to give it sustained attention’. 

Patrick Gathara, senior editor, inclusive storytelling at The New Humanitarian, was also critical of mainstream media. He called for a ‘different kind of journalism’. Simply reporting the facts was not enough he said. ‘What we have now is not working. The western model of journalism is not valid for a global audience’.

The New Humanitarian is committed to highlighting stories that do not usually get the media’s attention and, for those that do, it focuses on aspects that are not being reported. He agreed with Sara that the goal of journalism should be to have impact in the real world.

How can NGOs and journalists work more effectively together?

One of the aims of this session was to explore how NGOs and journalists could work more effectively together. Simon Murphy, senior news reporter with The Sunday Mirror, spoke about his trip to Somalia in September 2023, which was facilitated by Save the Children. The charity provided security and managed all the logistics; Simon was left to write the story as he saw it. 

He wrote an emotive piece which ran across several pages of the paper, under the headline Tragedy of a baby who can’t even cry. His focus was the story of two-year old Nasro, who was so dehydrated as a result of hunger that she couldn’t even produce tears. Shaima Al-Obaidi from Save the Children told us that the Sunday Mirror story had a major impact, raising money for the charity and alerting politicians to the need for action. 

Media coverage can give NGO campaigns much greater impact

Our final speaker, Halima Begum, Chief Executive of Oxfam GB, told us that the media was an important ally for charities, particularly in their campaigning and advocacy. She gave the example of Oxfam’s campaign to stop the UK government selling arms to the Saudis for use in the war in Yemen. Media coverage kept this issue in the spotlight and helped Oxfam to mobilise public support for its campaign.

But Halima, like several speakers, felt that the partnership between the media and NGOs could be improved. ‘There is great potential for a much better partnership’ she said. She wanted to see the media doing more to humanise stories and becoming much closer to people on the ground. 

A video recording of this event will be available to IBT members shortly.

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