Simplistic coverage of catastrophes

The 30th anniversary of a key moment in modern TV journalism was marked on October 23: Michael Buerk’s broadcast of a “biblical famine”, filmed in a remote part of northern Ethiopia. The images shot by Kenyan cameraman Mohammed Amin, together with Buerk’s powerful words, produced one of the most famous television reports of the late 20th century.

Long before satellite, social media and YouTube, the BBC news item from Ethiopia went viral, transmitted by 425 television stations worldwide. It was even broadcast on a major United States news channel, without revoicing Buerk’s original English commentary – something that was almost unheard of then.

Bob Geldof viewed the news that day and, as a result, that famine report eventually became the focus of a new style of celebrity fundraising. This produced another key television memory, the Live Aid Extravaganza in July 1985, which itself became a transforming moment in modern media history.

In the aftermath of Buerk’s news story there were hand-wringing postmortems in aid agencies and governments. Why had no one been able to focus crucial media attention much earlier, when the widespread food shortages were first becoming evident?

The conclusion was that often a famine is only judged to be newsworthy once horrible images are present. But, worryingly, after the famine in East Africa in 2011, similar criticism of media interest coming too late was still being made.

Today, the same thing is happening elsewhere in Africa. BBC correspondent Mark Doyle tweeted in July 2014 that “famines are sexy, predicting them is not”, drawing attention to a report on the approaching disaster in South Sudan. Just as in 1980s Ethiopia and 2011 Somalia, the conclusions of Amartya Sen are being played out: famine is not a natural disaster but a result of social and political factors, where vulnerable groups lose their entitlement to food.

The preference for keeping the story simple omits the crucial social and political context of famine. In 1984 the authoritarian Ethiopian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam was fighting a civil war against Tigrayan and Eritrean insurgents. It is no accident that these were the areas where people were starving because, to a large extent, the government was deliberately causing the famine. It was bombing markets and trade convoys to disrupt food supply chains. Defence spending accounted for half of Ethiopia’s gross domestic product and the Soviet-backed army was the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet this story of human-made misery was sidestepped. Instead, the reporting was about failing rains, which kept things simple for aid agencies. This also suited an authoritarian government that did not want foreign journalists nosing around. The United Kingdom government also stuck to the simple narrative. The urgent departmental response group, which met daily to brief senior ministers in reaction to the BBC news reports, called itself the Ethiopian drought group – in the belief that this was the problem.

It was not only the simplification that impaired the reporting but crucial omissions and a misunderstanding of much of the aid effort. The Tigrayan guerrilla leader, Meles Zenawi, later Ethiopia’s prime minister, admitted how easily the rebels could fool the Western aid agencies for military purposes.

The Ethiopian government also had deliberate strategies to manipulate donations in pursuit of its brutal resettlement policies. Victims of famine were lured into feeding camps, only to be forced on to planes and transported far away from their homes. Some estimate the number of deaths from the policy to be higher than those from famine.

And again, the secrecy and brutality of Mengistu’s regime made it relatively straightforward to divert aid and deceive outsiders. Some aid agencies, including Médecins sans Frontières, realised what was happening and protested – leading to their expulsion from Ethiopia. Others preferred to keep quiet and stay. The minutes of the Band Aid Charitable Trust reveal inklings of misuse and misappropriation of aid, but indicate a view was taken that it was better not to object.

Little of this messy complexity was conveyed by the media at the time to audiences who had empathised with the victims, donated generously and wanted to see suffering relieved. Aid agencies know that straightforward natural disasters are much easier to communicate than trickier human-made crises.

Fundraising for the humanitarian disaster in Syria has been difficult – a complex story without clear goodies and baddies is not an easy one to convey, either for journalists or nongovernmental organisations.

So how much has changed since Buerk reported from Ethiopia? In 1984 the only voices were from a white reporter and a European aid worker. A contemporary news report would be more inclusive. But much is the same. Not only has the problem of the media ignoring famine until it is a catastrophe and then simplifying the explanation recurred many times, but also some of the same abuses associated with resettlement are still taking place in Ethiopia.

There is also the vexed question of stereotypical depictions of Africa. After 1984 there was much examination and criticism of “African

pessimism” and negative framing of the continent. But many images used in fundraising and reporting Africa still rely on those same tropes. Even today, the nexus of politics, media and aid are influenced by the coverage of a famine 30 years ago. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

Suzanne Franks, a former BBC journalist, is a professor of journalism at City University, London, and author of Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media.

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