Study shows how news shapes humanitarian aid

Media coverage of humanitarian crises can increase governments’ allocation of emergency aid — whether or not the crisis merits it, a study suggests.

Rohingya refugees make their way to Bangladesh
Rohingya refugees make their way to Bangladesh in 2017, one of the humanitarian crises featured in the study

Intense, national news pick-up can prompt the public, politicians and other organisations to put pressure on policymakers to announce additional funding, researchers say.

The findings were based on interviews with 30 senior policymakers in 16 of the world’s largest democratic, humanitarian donors. Collectively, they were responsible for more than 90 per cent of all humanitarian funding last year.

Emergency aid

The research team found that media profile only appears to influence emergency aid – drawn from relatively small budgets that are kept in reserve to respond to sudden crises.

Governments’ annual humanitarian aid allocations – which are much larger – are unaffected by intense news coverage, the study found.

However, the researchers found that a lack of news coverage did influence policy-making about annual aid allocations.

The team says this was because policymakers assumed that other governments were much more influenced by news than they were.

Policymakers therefore tried to compensate for what they assumed would be less funding for these ‘forgotten crises’, the researchers concluded.

News influence

The study was carried out by researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and East Anglia and City, University of London.

Dr Kate Wright, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Political and Social Science, said: “These findings have important implications for government donors, news organisations and aid agencies, and for wider understanding of how news coverage may influence foreign policy.”

The research suggests that anyone wanting to influence donors via the news media should target national news outlets rather than international, or local, ones.

The team says agencies seeking funding should target countries that put more resource into untagged emergency aid rather than annual aid allocations.

They should also look to countries where there are career-oriented foreign ministers running aid agencies that have limited independence, said Dr Mel Bunce, of City, University of London.

Strengthening understanding

Dr Martin Scott, of the University of East Anglia, added: “For government departments seeking to resist such media influence, and defend their needs-based decision-making, they should consider building stronger public – and ministerial – understanding of humanitarian principles”.

The research is published in the academic journal Journalism Studies.

Dr Wright is the Academic Lead on Media at Edinburgh’s Centre for Data, Culture and Society.

Related links

Study paper: The Influence of News Coverage on Humanitarian Aid: The Bureaucrats’ Perspective

School of Political and Social Science

Centre for Data, Culture and Society


Picture credit:  Paula Bronstein/Getty