To relate the immediacy of human suffering to political and economic structures (Google / Aljazeera)

Read at : Google Alert – images of the Africa Drought

Journalism and the politics of hunger

The struggle against starvation, violence and disease is also the struggle to understand and describe the world.

Dan Hind

Media consumers become interested in events in the Third World when they are provided context by journalists who examine issues like climate change, foreign intervention and economic trends [AFP]

Reports of famine vary wildly in their impact. Sometimes images of emaciated children in relief camps provoke an outpouring of charitable giving. The music and entertainment industry rally round as concerts are organised and television specials are aired. But usually the response is more muted. Other stories push famine off the agenda. The fact of avoidable death on a vast scale fades into the background, where it becomes part of a more general anxiety felt by citizens of rich countries. We can see the need for action but, apart from making a charitable donation, we don’t know what to do. In our more shameful moments we tell ourselves that famine is natural, something that happens over there, an immemorial misfortune. There are too many people, the food is bound to run out sometimes. It is nature. If it is somebody’s fault, it is the fault of the people there, of feckless peasants or corrupt elites.

 And so we veer between humanitarian zeal and uneasy or callous indifference. Journalists in the midst of a catastrophe know they are competing with domestic stories, not to mention the attention grabbing wiles of the celebrity industry. They do all they can to bring home the scale of human suffering. The result is often a kind of terrible sublime. Individuals are presented as being caught in events beyond human comprehension and outside history. In his 1984  broadcast from Korem in Ethiopia, Michael Buerk talked of “a biblical famine, now, in the twentieth century”. Then, famously, his reporting helped inspire Band Aid. All too often, similar journalism fails to connect with an audience that has become used to famine as a collection of heart-rending images and phrases. Faced with something so awful we are tempted to turn away.

There are ways of talking about famine that don’t rely so heavily on emotional appeals and that instead relate the immediacy of human suffering to political and economic structures. News professionals are apt to insist that they have to focus on the emotive and the dramatic if they are to stand any chance of engaging their audiences. But, as Tom Mills of the New Left Project notes, there are grounds for thinking that the professionals have this one wrong. In 2002 Greg Philo summarised three major studies by the Glasgow Media Group that explored UK media coverage and public understanding of the developing world.

Providing context

Philo noted “a widespread belief in broadcasting that audiences are not interested in factual programming about the developing world”. But though this view was widespread, there was little to support it.




Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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