News Coverage Influences Countries Emergency Aid Budgets

News media only cover humanitarian crises in a selective way. Global news coverage is often intense for events that feature clear, dramatic imagery such as the 2020 Beirut Port Explosion. Contrary to this, long-term humanitarian crises, which are harder to access and explain to the public, like the civil war in Yemen, that has been raging for over a year, are rarely reported on even though the need is much greater. The graph below illustrates this clearly.

We often assume that this is because media attention has an impact on how governments allocate humanitarian aid. It appears that this helps explain why certain UN appeals for humanitarian assistance are almost fully supported, such as those for Iraq (92% target UN) and Lebanon (84%), while others only receive a fraction, such the Venezuelan crisis (24%), and South Sudan (10%).

Research has shown that news coverage and government aid allocations are strongly linked. One study on US foreign disaster assistance found that for every news story about a disaster in the New York Times, there was an additional aid allocation of half million dollars.

Is news coverage really a significant factor in the amount of humanitarian assistance a crisis gets? Are we confusing causation and correlation? These are crucial questions at a time when donor funds are not keeping up with the rapidly increasing humanitarian need. These questions can help ensure that humanitarian aid gets to the places it’s most needed.

Response To Crises

Our team of researchers from the University of East Anglia and City, University of London, University of Edinburgh, interviewed 30 top bureaucrats who were responsible for making decisions about humanitarian aid allocation policy. They represented 16 democratic countries with the highest humanitarian aid budgets. Journalism Studies published the results recently.

Interviewed bureaucrats said that in certain circumstances, intense and sudden news coverage could increase humanitarian aid levels, regardless of whether the crisis warranted it. One policymaker said that this was true in the 2020 Beirut blast.

We have a very small humanitarian assistance budget so normally Lebanon wouldn’t have been feature. But, the wide-spread interest in the topic. Meant that we called early to make a reasonable-sized contribution.

Our respondents also cited other examples of media coverage that increased official aid, such as the 2015 Rohingya refugee crises and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

News Media Affected

The interviewees explained to us how news media affected them. This included triggering civil society organisations, the public, and elected officials. These groups then pressured government ministries to provide additional funding. One interviewee said:

When something made a major media topic, everyone starts asking questions

The impact of intense and immediate news coverage was particularly significant. Under these circumstances bureaucrats didn’t have much time to defend why they were not supporting an additional response.

Interviewees reiterated that national news outlets are more influential than international news outlets like CNN and the BBC. One interviewee said:

For our politicians, national media is important They are elect here so it is usually their public image in this country, how well-known they are here… It’s media that reach the wider public.

We therefore refer to these instances of media influence on humanitarian aid as sudden-onset national news effects.