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A reader responds: Why Humanosphere’s hibernation matters

Much of the popular humanitarian narrative on efforts to reduce suffering and inequity is uncritical and not focused on root causes. The U.S. Navy's hospital ship USNS Mercy. Photo credit Dept. of Defense.

Guest Op-Ed by Martin Scott

On 1st July, Humanosphere is taking a break – possibly never to return. Since 2010, they have been reporting daily on global health, aid and development issues for both mainstream and ‘insider’ audiences.

In recent years, Humanosphere had expanded its staff and scope, in part, to demonstrate impact and ambition to potential donors. However, during this time they also experienced a loss of funding and difficulty in attracting new financial backers.

Humanosphere’s hibernation matters because they are one of a desperately small number of news organisations regularly producing original, informed coverage of these important international topics.

As part of an ongoing research project into humanitarian journalism, we recently commissioned the media monitoring company – Kantar – to carry out electronic keyword searches relating to four humanitarian issues to find out – ‘who reports on humanitarian news’.

The results showed that Humanosphere was one of only 12 international news organisations to report on all four issues – and one of only two specialist online outlets (the other was IRIN).

Humanosphere’s hibernation and the more general squeeze on humanitarian news could not be happening at a worse time. The world is currently facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. More than 20 million people in four countries face starvation and famine.

At the same time, the gap between humanitarian need and donor assistance has never been greater. Current funding trends suggest that the UN appeal for humanitarian funding for 2017 will be ‘lucky to raise half the amount they’ve asked for,’ not least because of the US administration’s apparent desire to cut its foreign aid budget.

In short, Humanosphere’s hiatus is important because it represents a further narrowing of the already limited range of sources of information about humanitarian issues – just at a time when it is needed most.

Who pays?

There are, of course, a number of other specialist news outlets reporting on these issues, including Inter Press Service, NPR’s Goats and Soda blog, SciDev.Net, The Development Set and The World Post as well sections of The Guardian and El Pais. Unfortunately, many of these are also either struggling financially or are heavily reliant on donor funding.

News about humanitarian and development issues is generally ‘not commercially viable’ because it is both expensive to produce and rarely attracts mass audiences or significant advertising revenue. As a result, donor funding is one of the few – and often the only – substantial source of funding available.

Despite its importance, though, there are ‘significant limits’ to a donor-funding model – as Humanosphere’s experience illustrates.

Firstly, donor funding rarely offers long-term financial sustainability. Rodney Benson explains that, “most major foundations see themselves as providing… short-term start-up support with the expectation that non-profits will eventually achieve commercial sustainability”. Given that this is unlikely, news organisations often remain in a financially precarious position.

Humanosphere wasn’t the first and won’t be the last news organisation in this field to (perhaps temporarily) close when donor funding runs out. Last year, for example, also suspended operations when its major donor – First Look Media – ceased funding.

Secondly, there just isn’t enough donor money to go around. Very few donors are active in this area; often because their objectives don’t align with those of journalists or because of the difficulty of measuring the impact of their investments.

Indeed, most of the specialist news organisations listed above rely, to some extent, on resources from just one donor – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The fact that a range of other, somewhat atypical donors supported Humanosphere was another thing that set it apart. Unfortunately, its forced hibernation now only further illustrates the lack of donor funding available.

Finally, it is often alleged that donor funding does not incentivise watchdog journalism in this area. With its reputation for critical reporting, Humanosphere had, until recently, represented a clear counter-example. Given its temporary closure, though, this is no longer the case. According to Tom Murphy, one of Humanosphere’s leading journalists, ‘donors are not interested in news that is critical of humanitarianism and [the] industry’. The outcome of Humanosphere’s period of hiatus will help to reveal whether he is right.

What next?

Despite the numerous challenges facing humanitarian journalism, there are a number of ways forward.

Firstly, we need to continue to experiment with and learn from the variety of forms of international journalism currently being practiced. Collaborative cross-border journalism, for example, has proven to be an effective way of pooling limited resources in order to cover complex, systemic global issues like forced displacement. This is epitomized by the work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – but is also evident in collaborations such as the New Arrivals Project and the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

The growth of News Deeply suggests that there may be a growing appetite for international journalism with a specific thematic or geographic focus. News Deeply has recently made several new additions to its portfolio of single-issue news sites, which now include Women and Girls, Refugees Deeply and Syria Deeply. Rapid changes in communication technologies also offer new possibilities to develop different kinds of journalism. For example, the media company – RYOT – which is made up of humanitarian aid workers and filmmakers, has pioneered the use of 360° and virtual reality experiences in covering global and social issues.

It is worth noting, though, that most of these examples of innovative practice are also donor-funded. Therefore, in the short-term at least, the future of international journalism will continue to depend very much on the extent to which we can better understand and begin to work through the tensions that exist between donors and journalists.

This work has already begun at events such as the Journalism Funders Forum and the Beyond Disruption workshop, which sought to identify more effective ways of working together – both through dialogue and experimentation. We have recently published an article ourselves, investigating what happened when an international humanitarian news organisation begins to accept foundation funding. There are a number of lessons to be learnt from this case about the unintended, indirect and often contradictory influences that donor funding can have.

Finally, we need to get better at understanding audiences for humanitarian news, whether donors require it or not. Initiatives like the DevCommsLab can help. This site was founded by researchers running the Aid Attitudes Tracker – an ongoing survey of public attitudes towards aid in the UK, France, Germany and the US, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Their results suggest that there may be more demand for humanitarian news than is often assumed. According to the data, more people claim to follow news about ‘humanitarian disasters’ (59%) either ‘closely’ or ‘fairly closely’ than any other type of international news they were asked about. This included coverage of foreign affairs in general (53%) and news specifically about climate change (45%), human rights (45%) and political unrest in developing countries (44%). Furthermore, the data revealed no significant differences between the levels of humanitarian news consumption according to either gender or political affiliation.

We began our research into humanitarian journalism in January 2017 by asking – ‘is humanitarian journalism in crisis’? Six months later, given Humanosphere’s hibernation and the wider issues this reveals, it is difficult to conclude otherwise. Nevertheless, we hope that by better understanding the multiple drivers of this crisis and the logics that underpin it, ultimately, we can find better ways of sustaining this journalism in future. The scale of suffering in the world demands it.

Martin Scott

The author: Dr. Martin Scott is a senior lecturer in Media and International Development at the School of International Development (DEV), University of East Anglia, UK. Scott is author of Media and Development (Zed Books, 2014) and has written academic articles and book chapters on the subjects of humanitarian journalism, celebrities and development, representations of Africa, mediated cosmopolitanism and the role of popular culture in politics.


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