Media and Natural Disasters

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  • by Anup Shah
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While this site typically does not provide coverage of natural disasters, occasionally, events are either of global significance, or involve a number of issues that result in some mention here. Unfortunately, I do not have the resources, time, or capacity to provide up to the minute coverage on natural disasters.

The mainstream media, when it does cover a major natural disaster, oftentimes does well at providing details of what happened, so I cannot provide anything extra here, typically.

Just the second half of 2005 alone seems to have witnessed a number of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, ferocious hurricanes, mudslides, floods, droughts, forest fires, failing crops, and more. Yet, we have had intense media coverage of some of these, but weaker or almost no reporting of others. Why is that?

While there are legitimate and practical constraints at times, when news outlets broadcast or print their world news segments, it seems the global stories selected are often based on local drivers rather than a drive for truly global coverage.

Below are just a few natural disasters that have occurred in the second half of 2005 which had a varying degree of coverage:

On this page:

  1. Pakistan and Indian Earthquake
  2. Food shortages in West and Southern Africa
  3. Typhoons in East Asia
  4. Devastating Hurricanes affecting Central America and the US
  5. Differences in media coverage
    1. Unintended Consequences
    2. Follow-ups on natural disaster recovery
    3. Limited type of coverage – context or deeper issues often missing
  6. What is the direction of the media?

Pakistan and Indian Earthquake

October 2005 saw a devastating earthquake in Pakistan, centered around the Kashmir region, which also impacted bordering regions in India.

The BBC reports that, Pakistan says 38,000 people died in the quake, 60,000 were injured and 3.3 million are homeless. At least another 1,400 more people died in Indian-administered Kashmir. Pakistan says the quake will cost it $5 billion in infrastructure losses.

The area that has been devastated has been huge. In addition, the rough, mountainous quake area has made relief operations extremely difficult. Bad weather such as heavy rains and winds have also hampering relief operation. As a result, the total number of deaths is feared to double as an equal number of people die from cold and hunger in the aftermath as winter approaches. While a number of countries have donated to the relief operations, the amounts being raised for urgent aid dwarfs the amounts that will be needed in rebuilding.

Pakistan’s military-led relief operations, not without its problems and criticisms, have been praised by some media. By comparison, the less-reported Indian relief operations have, according to the BBC, been poor. However, Pakistan’s resources are limited, and despite repeated calls from authorities and international organizations, such as the United Nations for more help, little appears to have come urgently.

As a number of media outlets have reported, Pakistan, the UN and various organizations such as the Red Cross have said that only a fraction of the money pledged has been received and is an unusually slow response. More generally the international response has been described as wholly inadequate.

To be fair, thousands have not been reached because the region is very difficult to access. Yet, basics such as tents and blankets have also been in extremely short supply as the demand is great due to the sheer size of the disaster. (The British Channel 4 report linked to above in the previous paragraph also notes that of the 500,000 tents needed, only 36,000 have been delivered, but even with future tents pledged, there will be a shortfall of almost 200,000 tents.)

With such a devastating impact, intense media coverage is to be expected, no matter where in the world it is.

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Food shortages in West and Southern Africa

Across Southern Africa, some 12 million are, or will be, affected by poor rains and failing crops. Malawi has already declared a national disaster as almost half the population is threatened by food shortages.

Some 5 million people will need food aid in West Africa (in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso) due to failing crops, locust infections, and poverty.

  • This did get a bit of media attention, but almost as if the world was caught off-guard, ironically when the world was watching the 2005 G8 Summit and Live 8 concerts, a key focus for which was poverty and other problems in Africa.
  • Almost not reported at all (typically), however, has been Western economic policies often pushed onto these African countries have made bad problems worse.
  • Devastating Structural Adjustment Programs for over two decades, for example, have meant many Africans cannot afford basic health or education. As the BBC did admit, Niger, for example, has a policy, encouraged by the Western world, of privatized health care so that it costs $14 (£8) for a mother to get a baby a medical consultation. That means almost no-one in the country can afford to see a nurse or a doctor.
  • Niger is rated by the United Nations as one of the most poorest countries in the world.

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Typhoons in East Asia

At the end of September 2005, a typhoon in Vietnam left hundreds of thousands homeless and without sources of income.

A few days later, at the beginning of October, another typhoon in China resulted in hundreds of thousands being evacuated from some areas.

(See Relief Web’s Asia Natural Disasters archive section for a list of many other such events.)

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Devastating Hurricanes affecting Central America and the US

  • Hurricane Stan’s immense devastation in Central America just a few weeks earlier than the Pakistan earthquake was less reported (though the number of lives lost were considerably less as well – not to minimize the importance of each life)
  • The devastation from hurricanes Katrina and Rita were well covered (and the previous link refers to this site’s own coverage of that).
  • Hurricane Wilma, just a few weeks later, has battered Mexico again (this time hitting popular tourist destinations for Westerners). It is feared, at the time of writing, that it will make its way up towards Florida and up the east coast of the US.
  • Wilma adds to one of the stormiest years for the Caribbean region, fueling more discussion about climate change.

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Differences in media coverage

Media coverage of disasters in 2005, and before, have varied considerably, with some disasters getting almost no coverage and others receiving a lot. The media is criticized for this by humanitarian organizations as well because of this, and yet these organizations also need the media to try and get their message out. The Red Cross noted a number of these issues in its World Disasters Report 2005:

Media coverage of the 26 December tsunami dominated headlines worldwide well into January – much longer than any other disaster in modern history. After the tsunami came a metaphorical tidal wave of donations. Aid workers worried that the tsunami would divert donor money and media attention away from the world’s hidden disasters.

Many aid agencies regard media coverage of the world’s crises as selective and stereotyped. But they still crave publicity, hoping it will generate more funding and attention for disaster relief.

Humanitarian media coverage in the digital age, World Disasters Report 2005, Chapter 6, International Red Cross

While some smaller media outlets would no doubt be stretched trying to provide a lot of coverage for many simultaneous natural disasters, those listed above were not entirely simultaneous, and yet, the coverage of some of these disasters were less than others. For some of the global mass media outlets, it would not be hard to cover these pressing issues for so many people, especially as they clearly have sufficient resources.

There are a number of complex reasons, including ones we are accustomed to hearing, which the Red Cross also summarizes here:

News judgment reflects established criteria. News must be new. Editors sort stories by death tolls. Disasters that are unusual yet explicable, and that cause considerable death or destruction in accessible places which the audience is believed to care about, get covered. Baffling stories get less attention.

The commercial imperative has sharpened journalists’ quest for ratings. Today, TV news is part news and part entertainment. So it’s understandable that sudden, dramatic disasters like volcanoes or tsunamis are intensely newsworthy, whereas long-drawn-out crises (difficult to describe, let alone film) are not.

Humanitarian media coverage in the digital age, World Disasters Report 2005, Chapter 6, International Red Cross

Places which the audience is believed to care about is an interesting point. Local interests therefore drive global news reporting for a number of reasons such as:

The impact to Western interests
  • Where western foreigners typically travel (e.g, the tsunami-hit areas, the Caribbean, Southern coasts of America, etc) there would no doubt be more coverage
  • Pakistan also happens to be of strategic interest to countries such as the US in their war on terrorism, hence there was a bit more coverage on the Bush administration’s response to the disaster.
  • The Red Cross, in the same chapter mentioned above, does acknowledge a study showing an increase in media coverage of aid operations. Despite NGOs’ concerns, a major 2004 study by Professor Steve Ross of Columbia University found evidence that media coverage of aid operations is increasing. The number of articles in English-speaking publications worldwide mentioning AIDS in Africa jumped from 3,607 in 1998 to 19,375 in 2003. However, one reason for the increase in AIDS coverage in recent years has been because it has also become a threat to the West and because in 2000 the US said AIDS was a threat to National Security. While it was a problem ravaging Africa only, it had less attention. (See this site’s AIDS in Africa section for more details on that aspect.)
The impact to a country’s own interest
  • Obviously media coverage from organizations in one’s own country will concentrate far more on disasters closer to home. Hence Central American media outlets reported more on the effects of hurricane Stan than say CNN or BBC did. Likewise, as a radio commentator in England noted (I can’t recall exact details of when and which broadcast, unfortunately), Britain provided more coverage of mudslides etc in a rural area of Britain where a small number of people were impacted, compared to coverage of disasters in Africa and Central America. On the one hand, that is to be expected, but on the other hand, and especially for the big, global mainstream media outlets that advertise their global outreach and trustworthiness, this does raise the question of how we relate to the rest of humanity; who is worthy of news and who isn’t; what global news really means, etc.
  • In the case of the Pakistan earthquake, Britain has many people from the South Asia region, including millions from Pakistan. Naturally then, coverage of the Pakistan earthquake is an important issue for British media to cover (though the British media apparently had to receive pressure from the ethnic Pakistani communities to provide more coverage, initially).
  • In the case of Hurricane Wilma, thousands of British and American tourists have been caught up in the destruction in Mexico’s affect tourist areas.
The dramatic nature of some recent natural disasters
  • The Asian tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, the effects of Katrina on the world’s most powerful country, are all issues that take people by surprise, and from a media angle, provide most sensational and riveting coverage.
  • By contrast, the famines in Africa hardly appeared to get coverage, perhaps because it appears to be an issue that keeps happening, and maybe the media feel that people are now desensitized to it, and they won’t get enough of an audience for their advertisers. Maybe the above criticism seems a bit harsh, but many feel this way.
  • Long drawn out conflicts have also received less attention even when the death toll dwarfs most others, as the Red Cross noted:

    [In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it was estimated that] 3.8 million people had died since 1998 from war, disease and malnutrition. Even so, coverage of the crisis remained patchy: one of the worst sins of omission in media history, admits the BBC’s Fergal Keane.... Ironically, the dramatic eruption of DRC’s Nyiragongo volcano in January 2002 prompted a huge influx of journalists, but killed fewer than 100 people.

    Humanitarian media coverage in the digital age, World Disasters Report 2005, Chapter 6, International Red Cross

It is sometimes claimed that there is donor fatigue when it comes to dealing with so many disasters at a time. If that is true, then it would seem the media has a similar media fatigue. That partially explains the existence of Relief Web, mentioned above, which was created by the United Nations in 1996. It also recognizes that a number of emergencies get ignored by the wider world:

An independent vehicle of information, designed specifically to assist the international humanitarian community in effective delivery of emergency assistance, [Relief Web] provides timely, reliable and relevant information as events unfold, while emphasizing the coverage of forgotten emergencies at the same time.

About Relief Web

Unintended Consequences

The Red Cross also notes that too much media coverage concentrating on just some disasters can lead to fueling both public funding and the demand for instant action on those issues in such a way that they have unintended consequences such as

  • High-profile aid interventions that aren’t based on sound needs assessments;
  • The prospect of raising too much money
  • Forgotten emergencies

For the Asian tsunami relief effort some organizations had to close their appeals very quickly thanks to the large influx on donations, while others admitted that they received so much money that they would have trouble spending it all responsibly.

Examples given on these forgotten emergencies included:

  • Mention of an analysis of 200 English-language newspapers worldwide that showed the Asian tsunami generated more column inches in 6 weeks than the world’s top 10 forgotten emergencies combined over the previous year.
  • A comparison whereby the Asian tsunami media blitz prompted unprecedented generosity. By February 2005, the international community had donated US$ 500 per person affected by the tsunami, compared to just 50 cents for each person affected by Uganda’s 18-year war.

Follow-ups on natural disaster recovery

During the immediate aftermath of the Asian tsunami, much was reported on the aid and generosity from around the world. Many countries offered large sums of money for aid. Yet, almost a year on, there has hardly been anything in the mainstream news broadcasts on the amount actually delivered, rather than initially pledged, or how it has been used.

Issues such as the quality of the aid, or the conditions associated with the aid, or what countries may sacrifice when receiving such aid is hardly mentioned, certainly not as prime time news headlines.

To be fair, while they may not make headline news, they may still get covered, though in less prime time situations, as the Red Cross also notes:

Forgotten disasters are often chronic and diffuse, changing little day by day. Unlikely to qualify as news, such crises may feature as current affairs stories – especially on the websites of news organizations.

Humanitarian media coverage in the digital age, World Disasters Report 2005, Chapter 6, International Red Cross

As the Red Cross added, principles of aid demand that disaster response should build on local capacities and yet they reported examples of where this did not happen (e.g. Sri Lanka receiving air-freighted bottled water). Why is building on local capacities important? It encourages and supports the local economy, especially at a time of disaster. Furthermore, local supplies are cheaper, and do not involve additional costs such as transportation. (This is a general issue of aid, even in non-emergency situations, whereby much aid effectiveness is reduced by tying it to purchases from the donor. A lot of aid money never leaves a donor country, and, in effect, helps boost sales of donor country’s companies. See this site’s section on foreign aid for more details.)

But just a few headlines on the aid delivery would not only allow the public to see how their governments have responded to their outpouring of generosity, but also allow the public to keep up the pressure, and, without a lot of public having to dig around to find this information.

It was only in describing the aid needed for Pakistan’s relief efforts in a Channel 4 broadcast on October 20, 2005, that I came across some more information on the Asian tsunami aid: 83% of the target $1.2 billion was actually received. (It was also noted that only 14% of the $312 million target for Pakistan has been received so far, though that is likely to increase, no doubt.)

Limited type of coverage – context or deeper issues often missing

And, while there has been a lot of coverage of some of these disasters in the immediate aftermath and the subsequent relief effort, it is often limited around the factual issues (which is important and should not be reduced), with very little deeper context.

There are signs that things are changing. Issues generate stories the Red Cross adds. The recent heat waves and hurricanes in the developed world have galvanized media interest in global warming and ‘natural’ disasters. The scares and culprits associated with climate change are the stuff of headlines.

The media did also report on the failings and successes of the humanitarian agencies and their response in the wake of such monumental catastrophes, the unprecedented large donations that could result, and the often incredibly large number of organizations that would be very, very difficult to coordinate efficiently. The Red Cross report mentioned a number of times in this article was, for example, itself mentioned by some mainstream media outlets.

The apparent increase in mainstream reporting on such issues may, however, also be a bit over-simplistic and the non-governmental organizations themselves often do not know how to make best use of modern media:

According to Professor [Steve] Ross [of Columbia University], By a four-to-one margin, journalists say criticism and skepticism in the press about relief organizations has increased. However, argues disaster expert John Twigg, journalists should avoid easy answers: Media treatment of disasters is stereotyped. Relief is either heroic or failed – there is nothing in between.


Ross criticizes journalists for a lack of specialist knowledge about humanitarian issues and sources, tight budgets, impatience and crisis fatigue. But he also criticizes NGOs for inadequate media training, not sharing information publicly, confusing marketing with press relations, and not exploiting Internet-based tools.

Humanitarian media coverage in the digital age, World Disasters Report 2005, Chapter 6, International Red Cross

Is there a sign of any positive change? The Red Cross is hopeful:

Some media trends actually favor humanitarians: the growing prominence of climate change, technical advances in video news gathering, the rise of Africa as a geopolitical issue, posited links between poverty and terrorism, growth of peer-to-peer media and the approach of the 2015 millennium development goals. The Internet and 24-hour news have vastly increased the market for humanitarian testimony.

Humanitarian media coverage in the digital age, World Disasters Report 2005, Chapter 6, International Red Cross

But the media are less likely, of course, to report on themselves, certainly not in any headlines.

In addition, discussion of more complex issues such as the causes of poverty are harder to come by it seems. Occasionally, there is mention of poverty making a disaster’s impact greater than it could, but there is very little on why there is poverty.

Poverty and the crippling effects of third world debt are certainly issues that need more coverage by the mainstream. They are not issues only when the G8 meet, but they are unfortunately ever-present. (So when the media appears to be reporting on poverty at the time of a G8 summit, are they really being driven by the agenda of the politicians rather than the issue of poverty?)

Given that some 30,000 children die on average each year from the effects of debt and poverty, one would surely expect more coverage of such a global issue than is currently given, and one would hope it is not just a fashionable news item when rich country leaders come together for a meeting.

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What is the direction of the media?

This begs the question, is it the media’s responsibility to provide more analytics and context, or just keep it factual? If so is it the politicians that the media report and interview on to attempt an explanation (which risks becoming propaganda)? The G8 Summit debt relief proposals was certainly had positive spin put to it which the media did not report much on, thus giving the impression to the population that a lot was achieved.

What does it take to become a headline? A disaster by itself doesn’t seem to. If a government makes a big deal out of a disaster somewhere in the world, we are sure to hear about it in the media. If they don’t then often we will not, unless a few journalists on their own work to get the stories out, as happened with Niger and the imminent famines (ironically at the same time the G8 leaders were meeting to discuss issues such as Africa), or unless it a major dramatic catastrophe such as an earthquake, tsunami, volcano eruption, plane crash, etc. On-going wars where millions may have died may get hardly any coverage at all, as mentioned further above.

Many of the links I have used above do come from mainstream sources, yet those are not the major headlines on prime time television broadcasts or newspapers. Sometimes they do form part of the major headlines but are only covered with a few sentences or maybe mentioned for a couple of days or so.

Natural disaster coverage would seem to be one of the more safer political topics to cover. There is less ideology and political language/propaganda to have to wade through (though that often does exist even for natural disasters). And yet, even if media coverage of natural disasters appears to be selective, this should begin questioning our assumptions of what world news from a media outlet really is: is it coverage of events occurring around the world, or is it selective coverage of events occurring around the world, presented in a framework that meets other, local needs, interests, and demands?

In the wake of the terrible Asian tsunami at towards the end of 2004 and its aftermath into 2005, with the immense media coverage, there was hope that perhaps finally the Western mainstream media were making a turn and beginning to cover truly global events and provide real world news. Cynics at the time claimed the western media and their governments were only interested in the region because of all the western tourist areas that were affected and that the impressive wider coverage was for such reasons. At the time, it felt that this time those cynics were wrong. One year on, it is hard to claim that the cynics were wrong.

The mainstream may have taken a step forward to report more about the rest of humanity in the time of natural disasters, but it still seems there is a long way to go in improving quality of coverage of natural disasters, deeper context, and more generally, of near-constant, less dramatic global issues such as poverty.

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  • by Anup Shah
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