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Crisis and Media Event – Research Links

March 13, 2011

While every humanitarian crisis inflicts enormous pain and suffering, the media doesn’t give them similar attention and they aren’t covering them still. Why not?

CauseShift and Oxfam International gathered leaders from the humanitarian aid sector together with innovators inside and outside the sector for a special two-hour event in NYC.

To help prepare himself for the Conversation Gauntlet, Brian Reich assembled the following resources in relationship to the four main questions of the night:

1. How do you explain a disaster in real-time?

– This collection of articles is a good start. Instead of just reporting on what’s going on, relate catastrophes to our own lives. This can help audiences understand that crises have longstanding consequences. Emergencies can create awareness of how related agencies operate. This can make unaffected audiences think of disasters, in terms of their own lives.

“But landlines near the epicentre have been wiped out, and mobile phone service has been at best intermittent – a fact that has already hampered rescue efforts.”

“Ken Banks, founder of FrontlineSMS and a specialist in mobile telecoms in emergency situations, said that once people realise the networks are back up they are likely to become very congested.”

– This article acknowledges troubles with infrastructure, immediately after a crisis, and constant problems. But the reporter failed to write about how landlines will continue to be affected. Follow-ups on the use of social media can evolve into reports on the degradation of infrastructure.

– This transcript hits the issue, dead on.

“At the end of an epic journey through Africa in the late nineteen fifties, on the cusp of the post-colonial era, the American writer John Gunther warned of the dangers of the west ignoring Africa and of failing to engage with the newly emergent states. He wrote: “…we should at least give Africa our most seasoned, scrupulous, and long-minded attention.” I don’t think that even the most optimistic propagandists would suggest we have been scrupulous or long-minded in the attention we have given Africa; this is true of our political establishments and of the media.”

“It is in the nature of television news that it likes simple truths. If you have just 3 – maximum 4 – minutes to tell a story you need to hone in on the essentials. If in the case of a humanitarian crisis this means leaving out valuable context then the danger is precisely what Remy Broman described. You end up with an audience which weeps and reaches into its’ wallet, but does not understand.”

“This is not helped by the long standing practise of dispatching the ‘big hitters’, the ‘stars’ to cover the big humanitarian emergencies. They can be excellent journalists but often as not they will have no in-depth knowledge of the country upon which they are about to descend. Research is done by reading the international news wires and with a sheaf of cuttings from the library.”

If you are all feeling entirely depressed by now – HOLD ON. There is HOPE. Trust me. I’m a journalist.

Firstly I know there are enough committed and honest people in my world and in the world of the NGOs and the various organisations and governments concerned with this issue. And I do see signs that the media and the Humanitarian response bodies want a continuing dialogue. So what are my suggestions for change?

(i) From the point of view of a television journalist, I think we need to make a commitment not to abandon countries when they cease to produce dramatic footage. We need to keep returning and returning.

(ii) If we do make mistakes – media and humanitarian groups – then lets discuss them openly. Defensiveness because we fear what our competitors will say, is a road to ruin.

(iii) Critically from my point of view, we need to recruit more people from the developing world. That means more reporters on camera from regions that have been/are in danger of being the scene of emergencies. To the NGOs in particular, I would urge you to train more local people to act as your spokespersons. It is their emergency remember.

(iv) This is an area in which bodies like the European Union and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs might become more heavily involved. You could inject funds into training – I know some of this happens already – but specifically into the training of local NGO workers who can ‘represent’ their people to the world.

(v) I have for some time been convinced that a central plank of any attempt to make societies less prone to humanitarian emergencies is a strong civil society. That is all very self evident you might say. Maybe, but I do believe that much more is needed in the way of funds and expertise to help create independent information systems in troubled areas. Invest in the free press, the struggling local radio stations; they may prove to be powerful bulwarks when a crisis erupts. They may just help to get the information both journalists and NGOs need to make informed decisions.

(vi) A bursary to enable mainstream European and Japanese programme-makers to work in the television or film industry of a developing country. This would give journalists or producers the opportunity to have first-hand knowledge of a country, experience the media industries of another culture, make contacts and collect programme ideas. It could build up a core of producers with heightened awareness of international and multicultural issues, and with direct access to ideas and programme-makers around the world.”

2. How do you create a marketplace to more efficiently identify needs and match them with resources?

– This article details Tufts University students’ involvement in crisis mapping during the humanitarian response to Haiti’s earthquake.

“Meier defined crisis mapping as the process of collecting, mapping and analyzing information to address humanitarian needs on the ground in the event of an emergency.”

Crisis mapping played an important role in saving lives, by maintaing a real-time map of Haiti’s troubled environment. And technology, predictably, enabled this to happen. The article focuses on a need to connect different networks of aid workers, government agencies, and private entities. Crisis mapping helped unite the Red Cross, the UN, and other responders, during the disaster in Haiti. Online message boards were used, to keep the organizations in touch.

There’s another interesting aspect of this article, too. The International Network of Crisis Mappers held a conference at the school, and they relied upon media and technology, to engage students. Interactive maps of oil in the gulf and slideshows designed to ignite student interest were used. Attendees learned about new technologies, along with the importance of lending a hand during such troubled times.

– Pre-crisis intervention is discussed in this article. A tested system could have helped Haitians, before the earthquake struck. Many of the country’s buildings were found to be extremely vulnerable. The implementation of this system could help other communities respond to these issues, before an earthquake takes place.

“Jakarta is due to launch the initial stages of the warning system early next year. Last week, Indonesian and German scientists deployed two sophisticated buoys off the western coast of Sumatra in the first clear sign that the project, which aims to deliver tsunami alerts within five minutes, was moving ahead.”

– Of course, awareness is necessary, but it’s not the solution. An advanced warning system, if properly broadcasted, can help relief efforts and potential victims.

“Several corporations, however, were able to become deeply involved in the relief effort. The difference was that these firms had established relationships with aid agencies well before the tsunami struck. Coca-Cola, for example, has for years maintained relationships with the Red Cross and other aid agencies in many countries. Working with local subsidiaries, Coca-Cola converted its soft-drink production lines to bottle huge quantities of drinking water and used its own distribution network to deliver it to relief sites. Similarly, British Airways, UPS, FedEx, and DHL all worked with their existing aid agency partners to furnish free or subsidized transportation for relief cargo.”

– During the Asian tsunami, big corporations utilized the skills and resources they already possess. Once needs are identified, and in the case of drinking water, identification isn’t too difficult, these companies can deliver. Instead of simply donating money, corporations can physically deliver relief.

3. How do you keep 1 million people interested a year later?

“The long term, however, shows quite a different pattern and two other factors appear to be relevant.  First, the influence of competing stories—the Iraq-Kuwait crisis  and the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—seem to be more important than was the general fatigue pattern.  These competing stories have a particularly strong impact on the correlation between the two media sources: Once again, as interest declines, so does consistency. In the absence of a competing story, however, the fatigue effect appears to end and coverage reaches a steady-state, at least in the final three years of the Reuters data.”

– This explains why long-term interest is difficult to maintain. Other stories pop up, and coverage dwindles.

“Second, much of the variance provided by media sources such as Reuters and NYT is in the existence of the reports—whether a region is being covered at all—rather than in the detailed content of those reports.”

– To keep one million people interested a year later, the news media must preemptively expand its coverage. The industry, itself, must change. We live in a connected society, and powerful nations and organizations are obliged to provide aid during crises. It’s the news industry’s duty, to provide global coverage, to keep the public informed. When disasters occur, the public will already possess knowledge about affected areas. And when competing stories don’t exist, the coverage may not reach a seemingly apathetic “steady-state.”

4. What do we need to STOP doing during disasters?

– An interesting point from this article deals with poor coordination, and how it affects the distribution of aid. Drawing on a previously cited article, the advancement of crisis mapping can potentially solve this problem.

“Mr Thomas is seeking a “comprehensive stock-take” of the skills of those available to take part in relief efforts, so that emergency responses can be handled without other regions, also in need of assistance, suffering. In Haiti, lead UN agencies were forced to redeploy staff from key crisis response situations elsewhere in the world in order to adequately staff their response to the earthquake.”

“Mr Thomas said “There is no doubt that the number and severity of natural disasters is increasing and we expect that terrible trend to continue over the next decade. It is therefore vital that we have a humanitarian system that is ready to react. The unpredictable nature of these events is no excuse. We need a system that is fit for purpose, properly funded and has the right people with the right skills in place.”

“12:37 Elizabeth Ferris: Another reason the response has been slower has been the fact that there have been relatively few casualties– around 1,700 deaths, so far — in comparison with Haiti, when there were over 200,000 deaths in the first few days. An earthquake simply happens much faster than flooding — even though the number of people affected in the Pakistani floods is much higher than those affected by the Haitian earthquake.”

– This is an interesting statement — why should large crises not receive aid, just because not as many people died in the first few hours?

– Again, this article stresses poor coordination, which seems to be caused by a lack of technology.

“Dozens or even hundreds of groups swarm into disaster zones, tripping over one another, duplicating efforts, and competing for trucks, fuel, and food.”

– And poor coordination spawned wastes of shelters, supplies, and manpower . Cultural differences must be considered.

“Asian Tsunami Lesson: Basic provisions need to be regionally appropriate. Workers distributed non-halal food and built shelters inside Buddhist temples, so Muslims couldn’t eat the food or use the shelters. Also, some donated goods weren’t suitable for the climate.”

– The article points out another flaw with the way we respond to emergencies. Subpar communication led supplies on a winding, inefficient journey, that could have been avoided.

“The supplies in Panama are part of an approach called prepositioning, a relatively recent improvement to disaster logistics. The chaotic response to the 2004 Asian tsunami showed that the aid organizations’ centralized systems weren’t nearly efficient enough.”

“Goods were being flown from China to Europe and then back to Indonesia,” says Birgitte Olsen, who became the IFRC’s chief of logistics the previous year. She enlisted researchers at a handful of European business schools to figure out a better way of doing things. “For the first time, we really gathered the statistics and information to analyze the costs of our supply chain,” Olsen says.”

– BUT, a big lesson was learned in Haiti.

“Heigh also has to keep a handle on what he has: The IFRC records tracking numbers on its goods by hand because it has yet to invest in barcode scanning equipment, and until recently, there wasn’t any specialized, networkable software to monitor goods in the humanitarian supply chain. Now Heigh has access to a customized version of Humanitarian Logistics Software, a system developed by the Fritz Institute. It’s become something of a standard for monitoring aid delivery, in no small part because it’s Web-based and the Institute gives it away royalty-free.”

– The Wired article, along with most of the others, implies that money shouldn’t only go to supplies, but communications software. Logistics are important, and quality systems should be set in place beforehand.

“More staff were drafted in but many had little or no relevant experience, with the result that mistakes were made in taking down information. This then had to be checked again so that police could start carrying out missing persons inquiries.”

“Initial information suggested wrongly that the worst-hit area was Sri Lanka, so the only FO rapid response team on duty at the time was sent there rather than to Thailand. As a result, help from London did not arrive in Thailand for almost two weeks.”

Although volunteers are necessary, they should be ready to handle these situations. Can presentations, like the crisis mapping slideshow, be implemented in training processes? Inexperience wastes time. And, according to this article, inexperience delays international responses. We need to be prepared when we go into distraught areas, or else the victims will suffer, and funds will be misspent.


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