the observatory

Starving for Coverage

Unlike the 1980s, journalists pay little attention to famine ravaging the Horn of Africa
September 13, 2011

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 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.

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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.

Given the economic woes in the US and Europe, and the prevailing view that the larger developing countries are doing comparatively well these days, it’s fair to ask what these emerging economies are providing in the way of assistance. In some cases, the answer is gratifying: the Turkish public has donated $200 million. In other cases, the response seems paltry: China gave just $16 million to relief efforts and yet was lavishly praised by the World Food Program. South Africa and Russia have each given about $3 million, and Japan (obviously facing its own disaster recovery costs) $5 million.

Other countries fall somewhere in between: Saudi Arabia has given $50 million and Iran $25 million. The African Union promised to give $50 million, and yet was taken to task by The Economist for being miserly. Numbers from Brazil and India do not seem to be available (if anyone has them, please comment below), although the World Food Programme notes that, “Despite significant economic progress in the past decade, India is home to about 25 percent of the world’s hungry poor.”

To find out just what impact media coverage has on such donations, it would be fascinating to correlate these totals with a media content analysis in each country. Such a study doesn’t seem to be available. But what we do know is that by raising awareness ahead of time, the press can also help prepare the public for disasters and mitigate the losses. This was one of the memes surrounding news coverage of Hurricane Irene—while some critics claimed there was too much hype, defenders pointed out that, hyperbole aside, journalists provided a lot useful information given.

In contrast, one of the concerns surrounding the East Africa famine is that it was predicted in advance, but still not enough was done to prevent the disaster. In a column for the journal Nature, Chris Funk of the Famine Emergency Warning System (FEWS-Net, a project supported by the US Agency for International Development) pointed out that, as early as the summer of 2010, “We knew that such an event could bring trouble, and we issued an alert that East Africa might experience severe droughts.” These predictions were based on the known impacts of La Nina, the weakening of local resilience due to poor rains and high food prices in recent years, and the drying of March-to-June rains in the region due to warming in the Indian Ocean, which Funk ascribes to climate change.

“The [warning] technology has outpaced the response systems,” Funk told In a column focused on the Horn of Africa reprinted by the Guardian,’s editor, David Dickson, made the case for improving science communications, claiming that scientists need to improve their outreach skills and journalists need to do a better job of engaging policymakers—arguments that sound all too familiar to anyone who has followed the climate change debate.

And that is the elephant in the room: What will the impact of climate change be on food insecurity, both in the region and around the world? The World Food Programme has produced a map with a good graphical representation of the global impacts (although it is a little hard to read online). Scientific studies seem to emphasize how difficult they are to predict: a paper by Josef Schmidhuber and Francesco Tubiello estimates that between 5 million and 170 million people will be put at increased risk of hunger by 2080.

Nor is the impact of climate change in the region straightforward. FEWS-Net’s Funk warned in his column for Nature:

The global climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were never intended to provide rainfall trend projections for every region. These models say that East Africa will become wetter, yet observations show substantial declines in spring rainfall in recent years. Despite this, several agencies are building long-term plans on the basis of the forecast of wetter conditions. This could lead to agricultural development and expansion in areas that will become drier. More climate science based on regional observations could be helpful in addressing these challenges.

The Horn of Africa unfortunately has a long history of famines. Agricultural yields in the region are low, and improving them is vital, but there is little sign of that happening so far. The situation is exacerbated by rapid population growth, military conflict and political instability. No doubt more news coverage would help with the current relief efforts, but the larger question is tougher to answer: What can the media do to help create long-term solutions?

James Fahn is the executive director of Internews’s Earth Journalism Network and the author of A Land on Fire.