Want Better Policymaking on Conflicts and Crises? Support Independent Journalism

18 March 2020   ·   Heba Aly

Fewer and fewer journalists are covering international conflicts. This is a serious problem: A lack of media attention leads to low public awareness and understanding of conflicts, and to worse policy responses. For policymakers looking to improve communication on crisis prevention, stabilisation, and peacebuilding, supporting independent media coverage would go a long way.

Just over one decade ago, I was stationed in Sudan as a journalist. It was 2008: The International Criminal Court had just charged the Sudanese president with war crimes and an alleged genocide was still underway in Darfur. 

Guess how many international correspondents were in Sudan then to report these stories to the world?


Contrast that with the thousands of articles published when Donald Trump invented the word “cofefe”, CNN’s Chief International Correspondent reporting on celebrity Kim Kardashian, and the New York Times launching a mobile application for cooking after discovering that “chicken” was one of the most searched terms on its website.

The state of media coverage of crises and conflicts is abysmal

One of the great contradictions of our time is the gap between the complexity of today’s global challenges – particularly conflicts and other crises – and the quality and availability of journalistic reporting about them.

The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has more than doubled over the past decade; dozens of conflicts, many of them forgotten, are simultaneously underway around the world.

These crises increasingly have global implications (think of the rise of ISIS, the refugee crisis that grew out of the war in Syria, or the spread of the coronavirus), and the public – particularly millennials – seems to have an increasing appetite to understand them: According to a largescale survey of international audiences, more people claimed to follow news about ‘natural and humanitarian disasters’ more closely than any other type of international news (see page 28). And yet the state of media coverage of such crises is abysmal.

When a group of academics scanned news outlets for coverage of four humanitarian events in 2016 (the crisis in South Sudan, the Aceh earthquake, the UN’s first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, and the UN’s annual appeal for humanitarian funding), they found just 12 English-language international news outlets – out of 20,000 – that reported on all four news events.

These are tough financial times in the media sector and international reporting – especially thoughtful, accessible analysis – has declined as mainstream news outlets have cut foreign bureaus and reduced travel budgets in the wake of lost advertising revenue. Germany is not exempt: In the move to the internet, falling circulation and declining print advertising of news organisations in the country have not been replaced by digital revenue.

And while technology has enabled information-sharing at unprecedented levels, it has not guaranteed its veracity, nuance, or depth. In the age of viral videos and 140-character narratives, informed examination of serious issues in the public sphere is dangerously rare.

In a survey we conducted among readers of The New Humanitarian, policymakers and practitioners in the emergency aid sector described mainstream media coverage of humanitarian crises as “selective, sporadic, simplistic, and partial.”

Why does this matter?

We cannot properly respond to crises if we do not understand them

First, poor quality media coverage – what I call “Junk News” – can lead to poor policymaking.

It has never been more important to understand our ever-complex world because we cannot prevent, respond to, or resolve these crises if we do not properly understand them. Just like in medicine, a misdiagnosis of the problem makes it difficult to respond effectively.

I saw this myself in both Sudan and in Syria, which I visited in the early days of the war. The media misrepresented the conflicts as ethnic and religious, respectively; and in the case of Sudan, strong ‘Save Darfur’ lobbies replaced the objective identification of needs on the ground. Both conflicts were defined by simplistic black-and-white narratives that hampered prospects for peace – and continue to do so until this day.

The degree of public awareness will influence taxpayers’ support for government action

Second, poor media coverage leads to low public awareness.

A 2018 survey, commissioned by Human Appeal, found that two-thirds of British adults did not know about recent violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or South Sudan. More than 40 percent did not know that there was a war in Yemen, despite it being labelled “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”.

On average, the German population supports development cooperation to a relatively large extent, according to the Aid Attitude Tracker, but in an annual survey conducted for the Defence Ministry by the Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr in 2019, 16 percent of Germans said they felt well-informed about German military missions abroad, while 44 percent felt they did not have enough information.

A lack of public awareness can have a negative spill-over effect on the ability to raise donations – known as “The CNN Effect”, on the public’s support for government aid budgets, and on levels of solidarity and engagement, for instance the willingness to host refugees.

The opposite is equally true: Sufficient and responsible media coverage can have a positive effect. For instance, in September 2015, following the publication of a photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, found drowned face-down on a Turkish beach, public sentiment towards refugees changed virtually overnight and donations to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station increased 15-fold within 24 hours of the photo’s publication.

Without high quality media coverage on conflict zones, war crimes take place with impunity

Third, lack of independent media coverage leads to lack of accountability.

The media’s accountability role became clear to me when, in 2018, two Congolese lawyers walked into our office in Geneva, Switzerland, to thank us for an article The New Humanitarian had published. Using satellite imagery and field reporting from areas rarely accessed, we revealed the government’s scorched-earth campaign in an overlooked conflict in Congo-Brazzaville, leaving a trail of empty, bombed out villages. The lawyers hoped to use the report as evidence in a genocide claim before the International Criminal Court and told us the story contributed to opening channels for peace, because the government realised the international community was now paying attention.

Without sufficient quality media coverage of conflict zones, policymakers make poor decisions, the public disengages, and crimes take place with impunity.

So what can be done to help this coverage survive, at a time when it’s needed most?

A rise in non-profit, public service journalism has sought to fill this market gap, funded by readers (8% of Germans pay for online news) as well as by philanthropists and foundations (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, Humanity United, and Luminate, to name but a few).

But as I argued in this article, this trend is so far much more prevalent in the United States. A recent study on foundation funding for international non-profit news found that “domestic non-profit news outlets in the USA are currently experiencing a ‘Trump bump’ in the form of a significant increase in funding from private trusts and foundations. But journalists producing international coverage do not appear to be experiencing similar increases in foundation income.” In fact, many internationally focused non-profit newsrooms have recently gone bankrupt. 

Governments can fund independent public-service journalism on conflicts and crises

Here, I believe, governments can play a role.  

Independent media have often stayed clear of government funding for fear of losing their independence. These concerns are absolutely justified, but most forms of revenue come with some level of risk. It is up to the media to mitigate that risk of influence. A tradition of public broadcasting in many countries, including Germany, shows that government support for media is possible; and newsrooms have long learned how to put firewalls in place to protect from the threat of influence by advertisers. The same can be done with governments.

We at The New Humanitarian receive funding from the aid departments of many governments who support us because they recognise the need for our unique brand of in-depth journalism from crisis zones to inform their decision-making, to raise awareness among the public, and, interestingly, to hold themselves accountable.

Most of our government funders give us unearmarked funding, leaving us completely free to decide how we spend it. Where funding is earmarked for specific themes (e.g. gender or refugees), we accept it only where those themes align with our mission and existing objectives. We agree on broad parameters to the work, but never discuss individual stories. A separate external relations team liaises with our donors, who do not have direct access to our journalists.

Our editorial independence is enshrined in our Statutes of Incorporation, enforced by our Board of Directors, and practiced by our team of journalists on a daily basis. Our donors fully understand the need for this independence, and we have yet to see a case in which it is not respected.

For policymakers looking to improve debate, communication, and knowledge of crisis prevention, stabilisation, and peacebuilding, supporting independent media coverage would certainly go a long way.

The coverage of COVID-19 shows how powerful the media can be in communicating the urgency of a crisis, analysing whether world leaders are doing enough, and making the public believe it’s something to take seriously. Imagine if the media reported on other crises in the same way.

English Kommunikation Frieden & Sicherheit

Heba Aly

Journalist Heba Aly is the director of The New Humanitarian, an independent, non-profit newsroom that reports from the heart of conflicts and disasters to inform prevention and response. Heba was named by the World Economic Forum one of 100 Young Global Leaders under 40 in 2018. Watch her TEDx Talk ‘Stop Eating Junk News’ here and follow her on Twitter at @HebaJournalist.