Media and Aid organisations: a complex – but vital – relationship


The collaboration between humanitarian organisations and the media – both local and international – is vital for many aspects of public and operational work, including raising awareness, fundraising, and advocacy. We discussed this complex relationship, the challenges and the opportunities for the humanitarian sector, with Dr Valérie Gorin, Head of Learning at the Centre and course director of “A relationship at stake: media and aid organisations”, a new online Executive Short Course starting in April 2022.

What was the idea behind the creation of this new course?

The ways media cover – or not – humanitarian crises and how they cover them play a crucial role in the outcome of humanitarian operations. This is a topic already widely explored within the communication sector, especially in crisis reporting. With our course, we want to focus also on the other side of this relationship: how humanitarian organisations use, and ideally collaborate, with the media for affected populations and how they adapt to an evolving media ecology in the new era of social media, digital innovations but also fake news and disinformation.

The media and aid agencies have a complex relationship as they both need the other, but at the same time, there are plenty of critiques on both sides. The media can see the humanitarian sector as corporate and manipulative, while media are perceived as volatile, inaccurate, sensational.

In our course, we analyse the relationship and, with the support of guest lecturers from the media and INGOs, we explore recent improvements, such as humanitarian reporting and the role of media development agencies.

In your course, you assess the concept of “media power”. What do you mean by that?

Humanitarian professionals – and people in general – place too much hope in the power of media. There is a belief that if the international media cover a crisis, it will automatically influence the media and the geopolitical agenda, attract more attention of governments and national audiences, and eventually trigger a humanitarian response or a military intervention. They hope that “the world will see, and will act”. This came to be known as the “CNN effect” in the 1990s – or the “Facebook effect” during the Arab Spring. As is often the case, the reality is way more complex. Media coverage is driven by many factors, including economic interests, geopolitical agendas, and emotional and cultural proximity in relation to a humanitarian crisis.

Does this explain why we have “forgotten crises”?

The humanitarian sector operates in a highly complex scenario, with multiple humanitarian crises co-occurring in various parts of the world. As we can see by reading the news, some crises get more coverage than others. An obvious example would be the current war taking place in Ukraine that prompted an overwhelming political, humanitarian and emotional response since Day 1 of the Russian invasion. Why is that? How do we explain the newsworthiness of events? And why, to offer another example, humanitarian crises linked to disasters – think earthquakes, tsunamis and so on – trigger more media attention? There are many answers to these questions, and during our course we will explore ways to work with the media or, in some cases, to bypass them.

Yemen, Sanaa, airport. People formerly detained in relation to the conflict in Yemen are transported back to their region of origin or to their home countries by the ICRC. The ICRC Yemen spokesperson gives an interview to one of the media channels that covers the release operation. Photo credit: ICRC.

Many humanitarian agencies are becoming news providers, thanks to digital media that offer more direct communications between humanitarian actors and journalists. Does the course cover this aspect?

Most INGOs and UN agencies have become news providers since the 1984 Ethiopian famine, which was a turning point for the professionalisation of communications and the creation of public relations departments within the humanitarian sector. Digital media have accelerated this role as nowadays, anyone can produce news, and there is no filter as we see with the crucial issue of fake news. Therefore, it is pivotal that aid organisations maintain a strong visibility and a reliable reputation. At the same time, they build relationships with trusted journalists and media outlets to work around the short attention span given to any news.

In addition, the media often use a sensationalistic and sometimes patronising language when covering humanitarian crises. To avoid that, humanitarian agencies are now making sure their staff is trained and well aware of using media in the best way. Moreover, humanitarian organisations need to collaborate with journalists to make sure they use the correct language and follow ethical guidelines. All aid agencies have their own codes of conduct and try to sensitize photographers and journalists who work with them, so they can report on vulnerable populations with dignity and without putting them at risk. We will practice this during the course.

There is a huge debate around the need to “decolonise” the sector within and about humanitarian actors. Could a stronger and better relationship with the media help in this direction?

Definitely. A collaborative relationship with the media can help frame a more balanced narrative around humanitarian crises. The ethics and deontology of humanitarian communications are key aspects that we will explore in-depth during the course. This includes a focus on the use of images by the aid sector, as some major humanitarian organisations are currently revising them. Thanks to digital devices and social media, we see the use of a new visual style to produce more inclusive images of people’s voices and diversity. Aid agencies are finally distancing themselves from the “white saviour” complex that in the past led to the so-called “poverty porn”, meaning the use of images portraying distraught, powerless people and, very often, children to provoke a reaction.

Furthermore, in the past few years, we’ve been assisting in the birth of humanitarian journalism, a new form of journalism that can provide a more accurate, more inclusive form of crisis reporting.

Humanitarian journalism is mainly foundation funded. Examples include the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, The Thomson Reuters Foundation, and a growing number of media development agencies, such as BBC Media Action. Humanitarian journalism can offer another, often local, perspective on humanitarian crises and can be an ally of humanitarian organisations. They share the same objective of a more ethical, accurate, and objective media coverage on crises. They also help to develop community media initiatives or train local journalists. This collaboration between local media and humanitarian organisations is crucial, not only to find the proper channels to communicate in times of crisis but also to target the more vulnerable groups to provide life-saving information.

Who is the ideal course participant in your view?

We designed this course with two key audiences in mind: on the one hand, we think it would be beneficial to people working in the humanitarian sector, not necessarily as part of the communications or PR team, and who may need to improve their knowledge of the media sector as part of their work because they will have to communicate in the field or use local media to reach out to affected populations. On the other hand, the course would help professionals from different sectors (journalism, marketing, PR, policymaking, philanthropy) who wish to increase their understanding of the specificities and challenges of humanitarian communications.

Dr Valérie Gorin is an expert on humanitarian communications. Her areas of research are related to the visual culture of humanitarianism, the history of communication, and the evolution and uses of photojournalism. She is currently doing research on virtual reality in humanitarian appeals and the link between (eye)witnessing and advocacy strategies in humanitarian settings. The first edition of her course, “A relationships at stake: media and aid organisations”, will be online from 25 April to 6 May 2022. For more information and to apply visit this page.