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

Joy Portella interviewing at health clinic in Pakistan

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.