News update: Aid organizations continue to do media’s job

As I noted earlier, members of humanitarian organizations are often doing the media’s job overseas — of being there (when the media organization isn’t) and “reporting” on what’s happening.

Joy Portella of Mercy Corps (the subject of my earlier post) is back in Seattle after traveling in East Africa and sharing her observations for her organization’s blog — as well as doing stories for other media. Portella was in the world’s newest nation South Sudan for its first independence day celebration and after that traveled to do reports on drought-stricken east Africa.

Portella worked with many media and wrote a number or articles, including these compelling stories for CNN. Here she is on CNN being interviewed for further perspective:

The reports all feature photos credited to Mercy Corps and the latest CNN interview with Portella ends with a suggestion that people donate funds to Mercy Corps and other such organizations.

Portella also wrote this op-ed today for the Christian Science Monitor contending, correctly I think, that the famine now killing thousands in the Horn of Africa is at least as deserving of American aid as was Japan after it was hit by a devastating quake and tsunami:

The people of the Horn of Africa are suffering in numbers bigger than those that inspired the Live Aid anti-famine movement of the 1980s. Things won’t get better in the coming months leading up to the hoped-for fall rains. If we – American donors, the U.S. government, and other donor countries, together with the governments of the affected region – don’t act now, the vice will keep tightening, and families will get squeezed dry.

I think Portella’s stories and op-eds are great. But I also think it’s important to note that she has been serving as a proxy for media organizations who are not on the scene and not really doing the reporting. The fund-raising pitch at the end of the CNN video is a little disturbing, as another indication that the line between those doing aid and those reporting on it is getting blurred.

I would be interested in seeing a comparative analysis of both the humanitarian response and the media’s response to the tragedies in Japan and East Africa.

I think I’m on solid ground saying that the media devoted much more attention and resources to the tragedy in Japan than it has, so far, to the much more severe and devastating catastrophe unfolding in East Africa. What about the humanitarian response? Did we actually give more money to Japan?

Is the lack of investment by the media in telling the story of the crisis in East Africa part of the problem here? Is the increasing practice of asking members of aid organizations, people like Portella, to act as proxies for the absent media a stop-gap solution, or also a potential problem?


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Tom Murphy

    I think part of the problem is that it is hard to compare Somalia and Japan.  Most striking is the fact that the former was a sudden disaster.  That is very compelling.  Secondly, the situation is complicated in Somalia by Al Shabab and the fact that it is a Muslim nation.  I think the Muslim part is what contributed to the lack of response to the disaster in Pakistan last year.

    • Tom Paulson

      True, but I’m not sure the fact that the crisis in east Africa is less compelling as a story absolves the media of its responsibility here. The scope of the suffering should be the primary determinant. 

      • Tom Murphy

        I offer no disagreement there.  It is terrible that the reporting has been so poor in regards to this.  It is what allows NGOs to push the narrative and make it more about them rather than the people experiencing the drought and famine.

  • Guest

    As – admittedly – a humanitarian writer, I offer this question: why does it matter who’s reporting the story as long as it’s getting reported? I don’t subscribe to the thought that traditional media tells any purer or more objective a story than a communications staffer (or even a field worker) for a humanitarian organization. After all, the intent of most traditional media is to sell papers or ad space. Doesn’t reporting for profit have the potential to skew a story just as much – or more – than a humanitarian worker reporting on the story with an eye toward helping people? 

    I’m not suggesting that humanitarian reporting is a substitute for traditional journalism at all – but I think that it offers a different kind of insight for readers (into places and situations the traditional media might never go anyway). I also think it offers readers a means to action after reading a story.

    Are there dangers that people will sensationalize or misrepresent aspects of a story in order to ratchet up donations? Certainly – and we must both guard and train against that. But, in my opinion, it’s no more a danger than traditional reporters who sensationalize and misrepresent stories for the bottom line of the media companies they work for.

  • BrendaR

    I don’t think it’s a problem that humanitarian groups are reporting on crisises. If the concern is that these humanitarian groups won’t be “unbiased” in their reporting, I don’t hold any more stock in traditional news media being “unbiased”!

  • Tom Paulson

    In response to BrendaR and the other commenter below,

    I think reports in the field from members of aid groups are important and useful.

    But it can matter a great deal who is reporting the story.

    As Joy Portella of Mercy Corps acknowledged in my original post, she would not feel free to report on government or police abuse she witnessed due to the likely difficulties this would cause her organization trying to work in a given country. I think it’s fair to say Joy also would not be inclined to report on political complications, problems or outright failures of aid programs carried out by Mercy Corps, or any other humanitarian organizations. I could go on …. 

    Certainly, every writer brings a bias or personal perspective to a story. And the media often get things wrong. It’s not really a question of whether or not humanitarian groups should do their own reporting. They definitely should.

    The question is if there is value in having an independent observer on the ground, reporting anything and everything without regard to any particular aim or agenda.

    My aim in reporting on this increasing trend of media organizations asking aid workers to act as proxy journalists is not a criticism of humanitarian organizations. It is a critique of the media.

    Thanks for your comments!