With major disasters on the rise, media’s short attention span leaves millions alone on the road to recovery
By K. Lee Lerner
Last Updated: May, 2013
Driven from their homes and communities, displaced people are vulnerable to violence, exploitation, poverty, and disease. In a chorus of languages that crosses continents, displaced people also lament that the media’s short attention span to their plight leaves them voiceless and alone on the road to recovery.
In contrast to the flow of media-enticing bloodshed provided by conflicts, the hardships and perils facing those displaced by natural disasters usually slip quickly from news headlines. Media attention inevitably shifts international attention from one natural disaster to another.
Patrick Cockburn, a former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times, argues that “media generally assume that news of war, crime and natural disasters will always win an audience. ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ is a well-tried adage.”
Writing in “Catastrophe on camera: Why media coverage of natural disasters is flawed,” published by The Independent in January 2011, Cockburn asserts that while continued bleeding in war and conflicts guarantees significant media attention, natural disasters have a far more limited news lifespan.
“Once the initial drama of a disaster is over, coverage frequently dribbles away because nothing new is happening.” –Patrick Cockburn, a former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times
“Even the worst of disasters has a limited life as a news story unless something new happens,” Cockburn said. “Once the initial drama of a disaster is over, coverage frequently dribbles away because nothing new is happening.”
“After a day or two, accounts of disasters sound very much the same,” Cockburn said.
The number of people in the world displaced by natural disasters varies by the number, type, severity, and location of natural disasters. The 2010 earthquake in Chile was far stronger than the quake that rocked Haiti just over a month earlier. Despite the fact that Chile’s earthquake also triggered a deadly tsunami, differences in population density, building codes, wealth, and the capacity of the respective national governments and societies to respond to disaster resulted vast differences in the number of deaths in Chile compared to the massive loss of life in Haiti.
The unprecedented trio of disasters befalling Japan in 2011, an earthquake among the strongest ever recorded, a tsunami ranking among the most devastating on record, and the world’s most severe nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, created crippling challenges in one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations.
As the uneven recovery to the 2005 post-hurricane Katrina flooding in New Orleans continues to prove, even the United States–militarily and economically the most powerful country in the world–is unable to ensure that communities can rebuild and that people displaced by large-scale natural disasters can return home.
Whether technically refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs), or migrants, an array of experts in different fields say that the first step toward helping is to articulate what displaced people face in common, and what is unique to their situation.
During an interview at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) headquarters in Geneva, Babar Baloch, a UNHCR communications officer said that to effectively respond to the needs of both refugees and internally displaced people, it is critical to understand the nature and scale of the disaster or conflict driving them from their homes.
Displaced people “certainly face problems in common,” Baloch said.
But in addition to common needs for water, food, sanitation, and security, Baloch said that displaced people face challenges rooted “in the length of displacement, in the terrain, and in their culture. Each situation is unique and has to be understood in context.”
Media coverage can also influence response to a disaster. When the international community can act to offer aid also depends on unique factors that more personalized accounts of disasters help articulate.
Even though UNHCR has an international mandate that authorizes action to aid refugees, additional circumstances, including the scope of disasters, may allow the agency to also aid internally displaced people (IDP).
Media coverage creates pressure to act. Baloch said that in most cases, UN relief agencies require sovereign governments to request aid, but when governments are dysfunctional or incapacitated–as was the case following 2010 earthquake in Haiti that devastated the capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns–UNHCR and other agencies can intervene to provide essential aid and security.
Even in those cases, however, Baloch said that international pressure spurred by media coverage facilitates diplomatic efforts to secure permission from whatever fragment of sovereign government still exists.
Following 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, the U.S. technically rendered aid and assumed control of Haiti’s ports, airports, and airspace at the request of the Haitian government.
In 2008, after Cyclone Nargis ripped through Myanmar’s low-lying Irrawaddy river delta, Reuters and other news agencies extensively covered the ruling military junta’s resistance to international aid. Published declarations of contempt by world leaders and calls for trials for crimes against humanity put pressure on the UN to act. In the French newspaper Le Monde, the French Foreign Minister argued that lack of action by the Security Council to force Myanmar’s ruling generals to accept aide, by military force if needed, would be tantamount to “cowardice.”
One way media might better serve the public, and offer voice to the forgotten is to more carefully compare and contrast disasters and to offer personal stories people continue to care about. Otherwise, “[t]he truth is we don’t really feel anything unless something happens to a member of our family or the half-dozen people we are closest to,” — Patrick Cockburn, a former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times
One way media might better serve the public, and offer voice to the forgotten is to more carefully compare and contrast disasters and to offer personal stories people continue to care about. Otherwise, “[t]he truth is we don’t really feel anything unless something happens to a member of our family or the half-dozen people we are closest to,” Cockburn said.
Ultimately the junta relented, the crack arguably widening over the next few years into at least a nominally civilian government.
Although not exclusively natural disasters, what Arnold Howitt at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, calls “landscape-scale disasters” are on the rise.
Howitt, an internationally recognized scholar and expert on disaster relief and recovery, defines landscape-scale disasters as “catastrophes that severely affect large geographic areas in many inter-locking societal dimensions, including life safety, community, economy, environment, politics, and culture.”
Howitt argues that “Modern societies are becoming more vulnerable to these type of disasters ” and that vulnerability to landscape-scale disasters is “not limited to developing or poor countries.”
“Modern societies are becoming more vulnerable…and that vulnerability to landscape-scale disasters is ‘not limited to developing or poor countries.’” — Arnold Howitt, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
“Our human systems are becoming increasingly tied together,” Howitt said. “Technology failures, exemplified by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, can drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes,” Howitt said. “Climate change threatens to increase the number and intensity of disasters.”
In addition to natural disasters, wars and civil unrest certainly add to the suffering of both refugees, displaced people crossing international borders, and internally displaced people who remain within their country.
UNHCR and other agencies, including the International Organization of Migration (IOM), argue that displaced people are highly vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking by prostitution or forced work rings.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva, Switzerland, regional and civil conflicts pushed the number of internally displaced people to approximately 28 million people during 2012, the highest number of internally displaced people on record.
While media coverage and international focus can vary for people displaced by conflict, waning interest in long running conflicts and natural disasters is a given.
The conflict in Syria, and the plight of the estimated three million people displaced by that conflict, regularly top current international headlines.
Despite the fact that IMDC estimates that there are more than 5 million internally displaced people in Columbia joining the ranks of refugees from that country’s troubles, databases such as TV-NewsSearch: The Database of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, show that many of the long-running conflicts in Columbia long ago slipped from regular headlines.
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A journalist, author, and commissioning editor, K. Lee Lerner's portfolio covering science and global issues includes two RUSA Book and Media Awards, two Outstanding Academic Titles, and two global circumnavigations.