Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media: Books

By Feldman, Sally | Times Higher Education, November 14, 2013 | Go to article overview

Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media: Books


Feldman, Sally, Times Higher Education


Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media. By Suzanne Franks Hurst. 248pp, Pounds 20.00. ISBN 9781849042888. Published 26 September 2013

As the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the 20th century." That was how Michael Buerk began his groundbreaking item on the Ethiopian famine in 1984 - a landmark episode in news reporting. It elicited an unprecedented response to the plight of those dying of starvation, and charitable giving changed for ever.

Millions of pounds were raised, rock stars and celebrities became involved, charities were almost overnight transformed into big businesses. And at first glance, the money raised, the changed attitudes and the scale of the humanitarian relief effort seem like an unquestionable good. But Suzanne Franks offers an alternative interpretation - even suggesting that the massive response and its aftermath may have done more harm than good.

There were several reasons why this event had such an explosive impact. One was what has come to be known as the "CNN effect" - referring to the repercussions of live, televised reporting of the first Gulf War. It was the heart-wrenching pictures in Buerk's report that prompted such widespread outrage, even though the scale of the disaster was far smaller than barely reported, unseen crises in Congo and Uganda and, worst of all, the famine in China.

Another factor was, of course, the intervention of Bob Geldof and the creation of Band Aid and its US counterpart. Suddenly, with the involvement of music and later sporting and comedy personalities, charitable giving became cool. Donations increased spectacularly. As a result, governments were forced to act.

But, Franks argues, the media coverage and the response from Western governments, aid agencies and the Ethiopian regime itself were fatally flawed by one disastrous assumption: that the emergency was a natural disaster rather than the result of history and politics; a drought rather than a famine. And this assumption was convenient for so many interested parties.

The Ethiopian government, for example, carefully described a previous disaster, under the rule of Haile Selassie, as a famine - indicating that the emperor was to blame. This one was merely an unfortunate result of a poor harvest. Such characterisation suited the British government, too. Margaret Thatcher had until this episode been indifferent to foreign aid, regarding it as just another form of welfare. …

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