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World

Crisis reporting doesn't show whole picture

Aid organizations often take the media along on disaster operations. Ideally, both sides profit from the relationship. But it also results in reporting that focuses too heavily on areas where aid organizations operate.

Here's a question: Where did Typhoon Haiyan claim the majority of its victims? Where the news networks set up their cameras, right? And where did the earthquake 2010 in Haiti or the 2004 wreak the most havoc? Where the radio correspondents and newspaper reporters were, right?

Wrong.

In the Philippines shows, all parts of the country were affected. But initially, media reports focused mainly on the city of Tacloban. "We are in danger of concentrating too much on Tacloban," Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, UN chief coordinator of disaster assessment, warned. He then added that urgent relief aid must also reach other regions.

'Distorted picture'

It's easy to explain why the media zoomed in on Tacloban. These days, major aid organizations travel to disaster areas accompanied by quite a few members from their press offices. Journalists who report from the field often latch on to - and stay with - those groups: embedded journalism is practical. The ensuing focus on a certain geographic region, however, tends to push other, possibly harder-hit, areas into the background.

A U.S. Navy MH-60S helicopter drops supplies at Tacloban Air Base, REUTERS/Specialist 3rd Class Ricardo R. Guzman/US Navy/Handout (

Relief aid spreads from cities that still have infrastructure

That can result in reporting that distorts a country's problems, says Hans-Joachim Heintze of the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict at Bochum's Ruhr University. That in turn influences political decisions regarding how and where aid is needed.

Aid workers paint a different picture. Where they start their work depends first and foremost on the conditions, says Steffen Richter from the Humedica aid organization. "We automatically head to the cities first because they have - or at least, once had, if the city is destroyed - the necessary infrastructure," he told DW.

In the Philippines, Tacloban was a logical starting point. While the city was in fact severely damaged, its infrastructure was still functional or could be quickly reconstituted - especially the airport. From there, aid has reached other regions in the meantime, Richter says, adding that he doesn't believe the effectiveness of the mission was influenced by the fact that most media reports centered on Tacloban.

Forgotten conflicts

It isn't only within disaster areas that the media can unintentionally set priorities. There are ongoing conflicts the public is hardly aware of, those whose victims receive far less financial aid than in others. In the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara as well as the Eastern Congo, militias continue to wreak havoc.

Richter says it depends on how strongly people can identify with the consequences of a disaster. Storms and floods hit Germany, too, though not to an extent as devastating as the recent typhoon in the Philippines or the tsunami of 2004. Suffering caused by wars is much more difficult to convey to the public, he adds. Wars are also man-made, and people are skeptical that their donation will reach the intended parties in the stricken country.

Perceived closeness

Moroccan security forces dismantling a tent camp on the outskirts of Laayoun, western Sahara's capital, . EPA/HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Western Sahara: One of the world's "forgotten" conflicts

In general, aid organizations and the media need each other.

Journalists often have no other way to access a crisis area. For aid organizations, more media attention simply means more donations - "although that can't be measured in euros and cents," Burkhard Wilke adds.

Experience shows that "people are more willing to donate if they receive immediate and authentic information and pictures from the areas affected," says the director of the German Central Institute for Social Issues (DZI),which provides information concerning charities to donors. At the same tine, media reports also serve as a check on how aid organizations use their funds - a form of corroboration donors increasingly demand.

Humedica aid workers are trained in public relations, and Steffen Richter points out the organization generally tries to have journalists accompany missions and to provide them with photogenic material.

That is much more effective than paid commercials and advertisements, he says. Sometimes, there may be an argument, "if, say, a journalist wants to accompany an aid team, and the car is already full." Often, however, a genuine team spirit - and even friendship - develops between aid workers and reporters in the field. In fact, Richter says, most journalists instinctively pitch in and help in precarious situations instead of continuing to film or photograph.

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