globalisation media

10 under-reported humanitarian disasters

Disasters never get long in the spotlight. The news cycle moves onto the next big thing, and a story that dominated the headlines one week can disappear the next. This is the nature of news (and why The Correspondent or Delayed Gratification magazine exist).

But what if a disaster barely gets a mention at all?

The development organisation CARE International released a report today that looks at the 10 most under-reported humanitarian crises of 2019. They have compiled a list of crises that affected at least a million people in 2019, and then analysed global media coverage to identify the ones that received the fewest stories in the news. It’s the fourth year that they have run the exercise, and for 2019 the top ten are as follows:

  1. Madagascar – in at number one is the drought in Madagascar, which affected over two and a half million people, but was only covered in 614 news articles globally.
  2. Central African Republic – a similar number of people were affected by conflict.
  3. Zambia – 2.3 million people needed urgent food assistance.
  4. Burundi – hunger and political unrest.
  5. Eritrea – drought leaves half the country’s children under-nourished.
  6. North Korea – a series of disasters affected half the country.
  7. Kenya – floods and droughts in the same year.
  8. Burkina Faso – extreme poverty and political turmoil.
  9. Ethiopia – drought and a refugee crisis.
  10. Chad – conflict in displacement along the wider Lake Chad Basin.

There are a number of important things to notice in this list. The first is that nine out of ten of those places are in Africa. If you’ve ever had an interest in Africa, it will not be news to you that it is under-reported as a continent. It was like that in the 1990s. (I studied journalism and international relations at university because I wanted to be an African correspondent and do something about it.) Little has changed. African politics is practically invisible, and natural disasters in the West get many times more coverage.

There are many reasons for this. Some of it is to do with the news itself. Reporting networks are better established in the West and in major global economies. Places like Madagascar have very few international news correspondents, if any, and rely on local partners or freelancers. News interest is also self-reinforcing. If a story is getting attention, editors focus on it and it sells papers. Conversely, if nobody is reporting a story, there’s no demand for it.

Some of the reasons are to do with the audience. British readers will relate more to disasters that befall Australians or Americans. That’s partly because we have historical and current connections to such places, but it’s also because we are more troubled by news stories about places that look more familiar, and where the people are more like us. They trouble us more because it’s easier for us to imagine it happening to us.

And yes, there’s a racial element to this. Studies have explored ‘racial empathy‘ and found that humans feel the pain of others more acutely when they are the same race. White readers are less moved by black suffering.

A second important thing to notice in that list is that most of the crises are climate related – droughts, floods, and famines. There is political unrest and conflict too, though that is often connected to environmental issues. When these stories go unreported, we are effectively ignoring the unfolding consequences of the climate emergency.

Those consequences are our own doing, of course. Since carbon emissions are disproportionately caused by the richest, and these stories involve climate effects on the poorest, these can also be seen as under-reported global injustices.

Now, I’m not in Africa right now, being a foreign correspondent. My life took another direction. I’m as guilty as anyone of under-reporting African stories. I also know that redressing the balance isn’t as easy as it sounds. But we should be able to do better, and I ought to start with myself.

There are things we can do. The full report, which you can download here, has recommendations for governments, NGOs, the media and for ordinary citizens who want to do something to shine a light on unreported stories.

6 comments

  1. And the animals and plants in Africa also suffer, from the droughts and floods, and the human conflict. So biodiversity declines as well. Soil loss too no doubt. Planetary limits being impacted. And not reported as you point out.

  2. Thank you for drawing attention to this. I did African Studies as an undergraduate and Master’s student, and I did my PhD research on famine early warning systems in Ethiopia, over a decade ago. Since then, I haven’t managed to go back, though I’m hoping to move to somewhere in eastern Africa someday to write about it more. There is also a lot of innovative work going on to address environmental and humanitarian concerns, and we need to write more stories about that as well, so that Africa doesn’t seem like only a source of bad news.

  3. Good post Jeremy. It might be worth sharing with your readers that the UK founded New Internationalist magazine reports on whats happening in the world in all the Majority World countries – including Africa. Its a great read- easy to follow and insightful and I for one use my large collection of back issues as reference material-:) I have alerted readers to it in my manuscript – hoping individuals will sign up and get better informed in the process-:)

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