Media or medicine? Reporting disasters with respect

by Save the Children | Save the Children UK
Wednesday, 8 September 2010 13:31 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ian Woolverton is emergencies media manager for Save the Children Australia.

Reporters and producers descend to tell the story of Save the Children's response to the floods in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh. With tripods, cameras, notepads and microphones, they jostle to get the best shot, to get the best story.

In Sukkur, television news crews and photographers are reporting on a basic health clinic we helped set up in the grounds of a school - now home to more than 2,000 flood-affected people. From nine-to-five, seven days a week, people line up to see a doctor. Medicines are dispensed free to those who need them, mainly for diarrhoea, malaria and skin infections.

About 10.30am the first of the media crews arrives. A television producer asks a female doctor at work in the clinic to join him on a walk through the camp. Media like this sort of thing. They want to tell the story through the eyes of an expert on the ground, in this case a medical expert. But still I raise an eyebrow. Can you imagine a journalist in Britain or the States waltzing into a clinic, intruding on a doctor-patient consultation and asking them, however politely, to take a stroll around the block?

Now, at this point, I should make one thing clear. I'm not criticising the media. In humanitarian emergencies, they have a job to do, and on the whole they do it well.

The fact is aid agencies and the media help each other tell stories in emergencies. We share information - it's a symbiotic relationship. But the way we tell stories is different. For example, I am not permitted to film, or photograph, anyone without his or her consent. If I wish to use an image of a child in a story or blog post, I must record their name and pertinent details, such as their age. Last, but not least, I must have the consent of the child's parent, or guardian. Standard stuff, right?

Not for the media. Admittedly some go to great lengths to obtain important personal information about the people they interview, film or photograph. But not all do, and that's a problem. Putting a name to a face helps humanise the person affected, rather than generically labelling them "victims" of disaster.

So how much influence do aid agencies have in helping shape the media's reporting of disaster? The short answer: a fair amount.


Let me give you one example. Last month CNN filmed Save the Children aid worker Claire Sanford as she visited camps for homeless people in Sukkur district. Afterwards, Claire called, saying she remembered CNN had filmed a naked child, and could I contact the journalist to ask them not use that image in their story.

Like most aid agencies, we don't use images of children that are demeaning or degrading. I'm sure you'd agree that's a sensible policy. After all, how would you feel if someone poked a camera in the direction of your naked child? Where's the dignity and respect?

I called the CNN journalist and asked that they not use the footage of the child in the story. "Yeah, it didn't occur to me at the time, but we thought it was wrong when we edited it together. So we didn't include it in the story," emailed correspondent Kyung Lah. End of story.

Back to the broader point about working with the media in humanitarian disasters, it's clear media attention on Pakistan's floods has helped galvanise international donor support. That's a good thing.

In the next six months Save the Children wants to reach 2 million people - half of them children - with aid, including food and shelter. To get there we must raise $55 million, and that's why we muster all possible media attention on our response to the floods.

The thing is, back at the health clinic, try explaining that to the mother whose child suffers from acute watery diarrhoea while the news crew goes walkabout with the clinic's doctor, or the mother whose child suffers from a horrendous head-to-toe body rash. I bet they'd trade news crews and media coverage for immediate access to a doctor and medicines for their children.

But we have to be pragmatic. As much as we'd like to live in a world where humanitarian disasters don't happen, they do. The donor community has finite resources, and to save the lives of children and families in Pakistan we need public support. One way to get that support is to generate worldwide media coverage.

To donate to Save the Children's Pakistan Flood Appeal: or call 1800 760 011. Follow Ian Woolverton on Twitter: @iansave.

Ian Woolverton is emergencies media manager for Save the Children Australia. Over the last decade, he has worked for some of the world's leading aid organisations, including Oxfam and and the Red Cross/Red Crescent, in major disasters including the Indian Ocean tsunami in Aceh (2004-2005), Pakistan earthquake (2005), the Myanmar cyclone (2008) and now the Pakistan floods.