What a difference a generation makes. Back in 1984-85, groundbreaking media coverage of the terrible drought and famine that affected around eight million people in Ethiopia spurred an outpouring of Western relief efforts. A harrowing report by BBC broadcaster Michael Buerk is often cited as the spark that led to Band Aid, a supergroup of British and Irish musicians who recorded a pop album for charity, and eventually Live Aid, a group of American pop stars who performed likewise.
Contrast that to the media and cultural response to the current famine in Somalia and surrounding countries, which has affected around ten million people, caused the deaths of at least 29,000 children and placed half a million more at risk, led to a refugee crisis in East Africa, and which was set off by the region’s worst drought in sixty years. “In July and August the food crisis has accounted for just 0.7 percent of the newshole,” notes a report from the Pew Research Center released this month. “Year-to-date the crisis registers at just 0.2 percent.” This time, instead of pop singers crooning about Africa, we have Lady Gaga parading around in a meat dress.
Relief organizations are blaming the lack of media coverage for what they consider to be a paltry response—at least within the US. “The overwhelming problem is that the American public is not seeing and feeling the urgency of this crisis,” UNICEF’s Caryl Stern told The New York Times’s Stephanie Strom. This seeming indifference also extends to social media coverage of the issue, according to BuzzStudy and Conversationsforabetterworld.com. Europe has apparently been slightly more forthcoming, Strom reported.
What is causing the lack of media attention in the US, and is it really responsible for a lack of public giving? How are other countries responding? And what does this portend for the future, given the onset of climate change? A look at these questions puts in stark relief just how much has changed over the last twenty-six years.
As always when trying to divine why the media does or doesn’t provide more coverage to a certain topic, we’re faced with the chicken-and-egg question: Is it a cause or an effect of the lack of public interest? In this case, an explanation of the US media reaction can probably be summed up as: We’ve got our own problems.
News coverage over the last few months has been consumed by topics such as the moribund economy, the budget deficit battles, the debt crisis in Europe, the revolutions in the Middle East and the phone hacking scandal in the UK (which was juxtaposed against the famine by a controversial cartoon in the Murdoch-owned Times of London). Search analyses carried out by Mother Jones and The Atlantic using Google Trends show interest in Somalia paling in comparison to the shooting in Norway and even Kim Kardashian’s wedding.
What’s more, media coverage has been focused on the US’s own extreme weather, most notably Hurricane Irene, but also the drought and wildfires in Texas and the string of “billion dollar disasters” that have hit the country this year - the most ever, according to Heidi Cullen of Climate Central. Some have accused the US of being self-centered in focusing so much on its own problems, but that is hardly a new or unique fault. Local disasters will almost always trump distant ones in the press. And slow-forming disasters such as the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa or the floods in Pakistan—ot to mention climate change as a whole—tend to generate fewer headlines than sudden cataclysms like earthquakes and tsunamis.
Anecdotal evidence does suggest that media coverage of a disaster does affect the amount of public giving. Aid groups reported an increase in donations following the official announcement in July that the crisis in the Horn of Africa is officially a famine. And ABC’s coverage of the African famine led viewers to donate $100,000 in one night. But there have been other reasons proposed for the lack of charitable support, including “desensitization to a region plagued by conflict, negative political perceptions regarding Somalia and a failure to recognize the urgency of the crisis.”
Certainly the US government has made it clear that it will not allow its aid funds to help people in areas controlled by the al-Shabaab rebels in Somalia. That said, government support seems to be less affected by media coverage. Indeed, the US government provided $431 million to the drought-stricken area this year—a significant chunk of the $1.1 billion that the UN says is needed for relief efforts. The European Commission has also given 158 million euros in emergency relief.