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Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
Journalist vs aid worker
Flood victims airlifted to safety
The Mozambique floods got a lot of media attention
A special BBC News Online debate between World Affairs Correspondent David Shukman, who has questioned the media's role in covering disasters, and Dominic Nutt, an aid worker for Christian Aid.


Dear David,

The questions you raise about media coverage of disasters - particularly of the floods in Mozambique last year - are awkward.

On the day Rositha, the baby born in a tree, was rescued with her mother, I remember walking through the lobby of a plush hotel in Maputo and watching journalists buzzing around. It appeared to be a backslapping, beer-fuelled bonding session. It made me queasy.

Only an hour away by chopper were the victims - the media mannequins - left clinging on for life in the trees watching as their livelihoods were washed away by the floods. Life is good if you're a journalist or an aid worker.

So why do I then complain - as I did in Orissa, India, while covering the cyclone - when the media fail to pick up a developing world disaster story?

It's not for the money we can make out of media coverage at Christian Aid. It's because Christian Aid deals with poverty. It is poverty which makes people vulnerable to floods, to cyclones, to HIV/Aids, to disease.

I am not interested in Rositha. I met her mother some months after the floods and she has been forced into the role of a fundraiser by her government, a government in debt to the rich nations of the world, a government which needs money. Britons raised more than 20 million for Mozambique after the floods. It was marvellous to be part of that.

But that is nothing compared with Mozambique's debt burden.

Journalists want the one-hit wonder, the splash headline. How many journalists win awards for covering the debt crisis, the Aids crisis or all the other manifestations of poverty which beset millions of people in the developing world?

These are the stories I want to tell. I can only do that with the help of journalists and journalists won't turn out without their Rosithas.

Dominic


Dear Dominic,

I agree with your central point - that the media can easily treat disasters as one-hit stories and ignore the far wider questions of poverty and development. I say "easily", not "always", because I think many of us do try to convey the context of disasters and do make an effort to do follow-up reports.

The trigger for our particular dialogue is a comment I made in an interview for the BBC World Service. I had said that in Mozambique last year, it was likely that given the sheer number of media-chartered helicopters covering the rescues, a few Mozambicans may have been blasted from tree-tops by the force of the downdraft.

I went on to say - which went unreported in the newspapers - that in a "big picture" sense a huge media presence was absolutely justified because of the extraordinary impact it had on the aid operation.

You then published a letter which implied - I think - that somehow I was against media coverage of disasters.

So let me make my position clear.

  • As a foreign affairs correspondent, it would odd if I were in any way opposed to the coverage of foreign news.

  • I do think it is always important to give the context of any event. For example, one of my reports from Mozambique last year deliberately focused on a village which had escaped the floods but which had lost all of its crops to the waters, making the point that this disaster would not end when the floods receded.

  • As someone who works in a visual medium, I think it quite proper for the media to seek out the strongest possible images - such as the rescue of Rositha. If that provokes a deluge of aid, all well and good.

  • I do believe there is a need for coverage of the background issues in the developing world. The question, for a correspondent, is how to propose these in a way that persuades editors to part with money to get them on air. We all know how newsroom attention can be quickly diverted to a new crisis.

    Like any organisations seeking a public profile for their activities, the charities try to achieve coverage on their own terms. That is understandable but unrealistic. Sometimes we'll cover events and then leave sooner than you'd like; now and again I hope you'll be pleased with the way we operate, especially if you've guided us with constructive suggestions in the first place. Yes, Rosithas would encourage us to turn up but let's remember: she was not some sort of media creation - she really was born in a tree and we were there to report that.

    David


    Dear David,

    As a former journalist I more than understand the media's need to cull the headlines and move on. No one is interested in a 'worthy but dull' story. I also respect your work and the work of many other BBC journalists.

    But the exceptions prove the rule. Last year the UK's Department for International Development published a report on the British media's coverage of the developing world. It concluded that many adults felt they got their best information from BBC's Newsround - a television programme aimed at children.

    I think you've hit the nail on the head when you discuss the dynamic of the newsroom. It is difficult persuading editors to part with staff and money when it comes to covering the developing world. Editors want to know: How does this affect my viewers, listeners or readers? Why should they care?

    This is the challenge of aid agencies. We can't let people forget and we must explain to journalists why these stories are relevant. Sadly, it is an uphill task.

    Dominic


    Dear Dominic,

    The public's response to many disasters is amazingly generous - people can connect with these tragedies. Yet that does still leave aid agencies with a challenge, as you say, and one that they're not always comfortable to examine.

    Two examples:

  • One colleague who covered the famine in Ethiopia last year described having trouble opening his hotel-room door because the agencies had left him so many notes inviting him to join THEIR helicopter or Landrover the next day to visit THEIR particular project. They all wanted coverage; in fact they couldn't afford NOT to have coverage; and the result was a little unseemly on their part.

  • During the huge loss of life during the mudslides in Venezuela in December 1999, I asked one of your counterparts from a well-known charity why he and others weren't making more fuss, weren't launching a special appeal for example. His reply was breathtakingly pragmatic, even cynical. Well, he said, Venezuela isn't all that poor and, more to the point, Christmas is coming up and "your bulletins are pretty short". In other words, it wasn't worth a huge effort because there wouldn't be much exposure given the limited air time for news over the Christmas period.

    It's my view that it's no bad thing for us in the media to raise the odd awkward question about our coverage and, internally amongst colleagues, we do this quite a lot. Perhaps some of the same sorts of questions could be aired by the aid agency community as well.

    David


    Dear David,

    I think it's of paramount importance for aid agencies to question ALL of their operations - including their media work.

    At Christian Aid this is drummed into us. We must be open and transparent so that people know what we're doing and why. The media has a responsibility to hold us to account on behalf of the public who funds us.

    At the same time, journalists often approach us and ask us for stories and contacts.

    At Christian Aid we of course want coverage - but the most important thing is to raise awareness of the stories, not to aggrandise Christian Aid. In Gujarat I passed on a few media interviews to other agencies when they were better equipped to deal with some of the questions being posed.

    You rightly ask whether we should scrutinise our media budgets. Please be assured we should and we do. Constantly.

    Dominic

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    See also:

    24 Apr 01 | Africa
    Media's role in human disaster
    02 Mar 00 | Africa
    Born above the floodwaters
    16 Nov 00 | World
    Human cost of dams 'too high'
    23 Feb 01 | Africa
    Mozambique fears more rain
    22 Feb 01 | Africa
    Mozambique in $30m flood appeal
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