Everything’s changed, everything’s still the same: some thoughts on the Future of Humanitarian Reporting

On 7 March, I took part in a conference entitled The Future of Humanitarian Reporting, organised by The British Red Cross and City University London‘s Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism. The event aimed to explore the way in which NGOs and the media report on humanitarian emergencies, and what impact technology and social media is having on such reporting. My contribution was as part of a panel looking at how NGOs are using new media to communicate about humanitarian emergencies, from my perspective as picture editor at the Department for International Development.

Below I’ve tried to set out a version of my presentation – including some bits that I didn’t get to cover in the allotted 10 minutes – and also some thoughts and reflections on the whole day. There were some inspiring presentations by other speakers, which lead to some fascinating conversations. I’ve tried to capture the essence of some of them, but apologies if I mis-quote or mis-attribute anything. Let me know if you were there and I’ve got something completely wrong!

Digital by default? How DFID is using new media to deal with disasters

A DFID (Department for International Development) Logistics Officer helps to load a pallet of humanitarian aid to Pakistan onboard a C-17 aircraft, following devastating floods in the country in 2010. Photo credit: Cpl Ashley Keates RAF

A DFID (Department for International Development) Logistics Officer helps to load a pallet of humanitarian aid to Pakistan onboard a C-17 aircraft, following the 2010 flooding. Photo: Cpl Ashley Keates RAF

Responding to humanitarian emergencies overseas is just one aspect of the Department for International Development’s work. DFID is the government department charged with delivering the UK’s international commitments to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Providing humanitarian aid constitutes part of this, and DFID acts as the lead government department co-ordinating the UK’s response in times of crisis.

This primarily involves providing rapid emergency funding to aid agencies such as Oxfam, Save the Children, UNHCR and the World Food Programme, or the Red Cross movement. DFID is not an NGO. It isn’t an ‘on-the-ground’ aid delivery agency. But it does on occasion provide direct assistance such as supplying materials such as tents and plastic sheeting for shelter needs, or other non-food items such as hygiene kits.

DFID also co-ordinates the rapid deployment of British technical assistance staff to disaster zones – such as civilian humanitarian advisors, urban search and rescue specialists from the UK fire service, or volunteer emergency medical trauma teams from the NHS or NGOs such as Merlin. DFID manages the logistics of such deployments and can get 70 or so firefighters, surgeons or other experts in the air en route to an emergency within 12 hours or so of being alerted. When called on to mount such a response, DFID often also provides access to disaster zones to media organisations or smaller NGOs who otherwise might not be able to get there. From the Asian tsunami in 2004 to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, and Japan after earthquake/tsunami, DFID provided rapid access to the affected areas for first responders, specialist NGO staff, humanitarian advisors and journalists alike.

But as the British Red Cross itself has pointed out, around 90% of humanitarian disasters overseas go unreported. Rapid-onset emergencies, such as major earthquakes, tsunami or floods are thankfully rare, but it is these events that capture the headlines and public attention. Less reported are the so called chronic emergencies – prolonged or recurring droughts, or long-running conflicts that often affect far greater numbers of people in total. These are humanitarian emergencies as well, and the UK responds to these too – usually via providing emergency funding to established UN and NGO agencies already on the ground.

So DFID has a story to tell in humanitarian emergencies – whether through direct response as oultined above, facilitating access, or through the longer-term humanitarian aid that it funds others to deliver. The UK is one of the world’s largest donors to humanitarian emergencies, and people in Britain are incredibly generous in times of human need. Communicating about how we help on behalf of the British public is an important part of what we do.

But how does this relate DFID to the future of humanitarian reporting?

The point here is that, like almost all other NGOs, UN agencies, international donors and media organisations, DFID has embraced technology and social media to help it tell its own stories. From Facebook and Twitter to Flickr and Youtube, we try to tell the human stories of people who’ve been helped by British aid. Of course we still work with traditional media – print journalists and broadcasters – but we are looking to use digital and social media tools to tell stories in as many targeted ways as possible – where it is appropriate to do so, not just for the sake of it.

And we’re trying to have open conversations with people on these channels directly where we can. From answering journalist’s enquiries via Twitter, to receiving direct requests for help from earthquake victims in Haiti in the immediate aftermath, and monitoring Facebook for reports of tsunami damage in the Indian ocean after the Japanese tsunami, we’re trying to use all the tools available to us to help us do our job and tell our stories. We have press officers using Twitter and a small number of multimedia communications producers who can deploy as part of a British government response team.

Beyond immediate emergency response, evaluation of how the money is spent is also an important part of the story. Getting out into the field, visiting projects run by NGOs who’ve received UK funding, and speaking directly to aid recipients is a vital part of DFID’s work in terms of monitoring, lesson-learning and ensuring value for money. Whether it’s six weeks after an emergency, or six months to a year, this part of the cycle of humanitarian response is also an opportunity to tell the stories of those who’ve been helped.

We see social media as a vital means of communicating with the public about what we do, and photography and visual communications are an integral part of this. Pictures can tell dramatic stories very quickly and effective, and they are very social media-friendly. They can be shared, retweeted and ‘liked’ easily, and they reflect people’s online behaviour – they’re a medium by which millions of us are communicating everyday. True, it’s a crowded market place, with some 300million images uploaded to Facebook every single day – but if you have good imagery to help tell your story, your images will get seen and shared, and could quickly reach a vast audience.

But it’s not just about responding to, or reporting on, disasters after they happen. DFID has also funded various media-specialist NGOs, such as BBC Media Action, Thompson Reuters Foundation, and Internews, to run the InfoAsAid project, to map media capacity in countries at high-risk of natural disasters and to train local journalists in those countries, so that relief agencies know what media resources and organisations are available when disaster strikes, and local media have the capacity and resilience to report for themselves.

It also supports innovation in humanitarian response through initiatives such as the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and the CDAC (communicating with disaster-affected communities) Network, funding projects that use SMS text messaging to provide humanitarian messages or feedback loops to disaster survivors – so that beneficiaries can provide feedback directly to aid agencies that are meant to be helping them – and let them know if it isn’t getting through – as well as providing seed-funding to enable other innovative ideas to be developed fully and scaled-up.

A number of media-specialist NGOs have also been pre-qualified as partners in DFID’s Rapid Response Facility – meaning that when an emergency arises, they can get access to emergency funding quickly, to enable them to deploy specialist media staff or journalists where necessary – to help either report on the crisis, support local media organisations, or even support the joint communications efforts of the international aid community.

All of this means that DFID plays various roles in the reporting of humanitarian emergencies, from donor to direct relief organisation and even reporter. I concluded my presentation by saying that DFID isn’t an NGO and it isn’t a media organisation.  But in the age of social media, in a hyper-connected world, we are all publishers of content. Of course there are differences between government and NGO communications, and independent media reporting. There are ethical issues to consider, about how we collectively and individually represent people who have suffered appalling hardship, and who often have little left but dignity. We need to be mindful of their safety and security above all, as well as that of our own staff.

But all of these voices are part of the story. I think there is a desire out there for more positive reporting of humanitarian emergencies. The international community is getting better at responding to them, and there are positive stories to tell. Technology is creating new opportunities for all of us to communicate. The media is always looking for new angles and the most interesting stories, in a time of shrinking budgets and real-time, up-to-the-second breaking news cycles. With the ability to publish what we want, at will, comes a certain amount of responsibility to the people we’re communicating about, and we need to keep sight of this.

Some thoughts from the rest of the conference

Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent, opened the conference with an eloquent speech that pretty much encapsulated the entire sentiment of all the discussions that followed. Her closing remarks are worth repeating (if slightly paraphrased, apologies):

“Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. The same rules of good journalism still apply. The same rules of humanitarian aid still apply. It’s about story-telling – and story-telling is not just a timeline of tweets or a stream of Youtube videos.

“Is there a future for humanitarian reporting? Yes, of course there is – if the reporting is done in the best journalistic tradition, and as long as the human remains at the heart of humanitarian aid”.

There were many other fascinating presentations during the day. After Lyse’s insightful, inspiring introduction, researcher Nicola Bruno (@nicolabruno) opened proceedings with a presentation entitled ‘Verify First. Tweet Later.’ He posited that the Haiti earthquake in 2010 was the first large-scale humanitarian emergency of the digital/social media age, and then presented an interesting case study on how coverage of the Emilia-Romagna earthquake in Italy in 2012 was influenced by social media reports – importantly citing examples of how easy it is for incorrect information to quickly get reported as fact, such as one NGO putting out a press release calling for blood donors when in fact donors were not needed, leading to people turning up at hospitals unnecessarily causing more congestion.

Chris Hamilton (@chrishams) gave a rapid-fire potted history of the BBC and social media, raising some interesting questions about authenticity and verification of photos and video along the way – which were followed up neatly by Storyful‘s Claire Wardle (@cward1e), who spoke about the challenges of providing a paid-for content verification service for the media in age where there are 100,000 tweets and 72 hours of video uploaded to Youtube every single minute of the day. She also proposed possibly the most interesting idea of the day when she wondered aloud how far away we are from a ‘Trip Advisor-style website for beneficiaries to report on aid agencies?’

Alice Klein (@alicerklein) talked about the experience of a small NGO, Radar, who offer training, support and a platform for journalists, citizen reporters and media professionals in low resource settings. She spoke about providing ordinary people with training ahead of last week’s Kenyan presidential elections, and challenged herself (and the rest of us) to not talk about ‘giving people a voice’, as if it’s in our gift to give anyway. You can read her blog about this on the BBC College of Journalism website

Liz Scarff (@lizscarff) spoke about working on award-winning digital/social media campaigns for NGOs such as Save the Children and WorldVision, and about how to reach audiences in an age of ‘opt-in’ media, where people increasingly choose what news they want to receive and when they want to receive it. Glenda Cooper (@glendacooper, journalist, academic, and the conference organiser), gave a paper that framed much of the discussion, outlining many examples of how the advent of social media has changed journalism, and framing what she sees as one of the key themes – the ethical challenges presented by so-called ‘user generated content’. She concluded by reminding everyone that traditional media isn’t dead yet – 10million of us still watch the 10pm news every night.

Leigh Daynes, Executive Director of Doctors of the World (@LeighDaynesDoW), posited that there are three issues at the heart of the relationship between aid agencies and the media: trust, truth and collusion. He gave some stark examples of the kinds of comments he’s heard from both journalists and NGOs when trying to get coverage and reporting of humanitarian emergencies over the years, and how complicated it can be to abide by the humanitarian principles of ‘doing no harm’ in complex crises such as Haiti and Syria.

His presentation was followed by Adrian Thomas (@adriancthomas), Communications Manager for the British Red Cross, who spoke abouth the ethics around reporting these kinds of situations and the challenges in using imagery in social media, particularly around depicting children.

Charlie Beckett (@charliebeckett), founding director of Polis talked about various pieces of research that he’s worked on with organisations such as the International Broadcasting Trust, such as Who Cares? Challenges & Opportunities in Reporting Distant Suffering, and Connecting To The World, Communicating For Change, which have demonstrated an appetite from the public for more balanced, positive reporting of international stories.

Journalists Ian Birrell, David Randall and Ros Wynne-Jones provided some widely differing context from the view of the media. Stand-out points from David were around defending Reuters against Twitter as a source of credible news, founding the Independent on Sunday’s Happy List (top 100 people who give most happiness) to counter the Sunday Times’ Rich List, and encouraging NGOs to build relationships with journalists, by phoning them up, emailing them and only approaching them with really good stories. Choice quote: “The best 1% of social media/user generated content can cut through and become the story, but most of it is the equivalent of miming through frosted glass”.

While I disagree with much of what Birrell said, he did make some pertinent points, notably that any journalist who isn’t on Twitter shouldn’t be in the room: ‘If I write about Haiti or Rwanda I get tweeted at instantly by people on the ground. So I raise my game.”

Ros Wynne-Jones (@roswynnejones) opened her presentation with a slide of Kevin Carter’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a vulture behind an emaciated child in Sudan, which sparked some interesting debate about use of clichéd imagery in humanitarian reporting, and how it is often editors rather than reporters who are unwilling to run humanitarian stories, depending on what’s on any given day’s domestic news agenda. She also raised the question of whether its even possible for there to be a journalism of detachment in humanitarian reporting – reporters often have to rely on NGOs for access to areas that are difficult to reach: ‘journalists are human too – cannot dispassionately observe’

There were at least as many presentations again that I haven’t covered here. As ever, many of the most interesting points and questions came from the floor, and I’m not sure that the panelists could have answered many of them, even if there’d been more time.

But what does all of this mean? Some reflections on the day and themes that emerged for me were, in no particular order:

  • Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. The same rules of good journalism and good storytelling still apply in the digital space – perhaps even more so. Verification is tricky.
  • Humanitarian principles also still apply – we mustn’t forget these in the rush to ‘tweet first, verify later’. The primary obligation for NGOs should be to protect those they’re meant to be helping – and sometimes that means not telling their story, in order to either protect them from more harm, or to protect aid agencies access to them in order to help.
  • Access to technology – mobile phones and the internet – is rapidly changing the landscape. We will increasingly hear directly from affected communities themselves, with or without the help of aid agencies or the media. Some NGOs are leading the way in facilitating this, such as Frontline SMS/Ushahidi and Radar, but it will primarily happen from the bottom up anyway.
  • There’s still too much focus from western agencies on ‘giving people a voice’, and a reluctance to let go and to listen to what they say.
  • Visual communication is key. People are sharing imagery online in huge numbers. But there are important issues to remember around ethics, identity and representation.

All told, a fascinating, stimulating day, that it was very interesting to be part of. Videos and presentations from the event should be going up online soon on the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism website. I’m hugely grateful to by @karmel80‘s fantastic Storify collation of tweets from the day – which is all the more impressive given that she wasn’t even there (she just followed the event on Twitter). Now that’s humanitarian reporting in the social media age for you..


About russellphoto

Photographer and multimedia producer/editor working in international development. Also on Twitter @russellphoto
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