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"Sensational" Media and Humanitarian Crises

By Nora Delahaye

News-media is a competitive environment. In the words of Steven Livingston, ''the world does not have an appetite for more than one crisis at a time''; every story covered in the media is forced to compete with others for the spotlight (Livingston 1996). When selecting a story to report on the news, therefore, publishers must be certain that it will capture the attention of its audience. To this end, publishers prefer those stories that inspire excitement, emotion, and interest in viewers; those stories that are sensational in nature.

This preference for ‘sensational’ content has the effect of monopolizing the news that is consumed by the public; while those stories with ‘sensational’ qualities are covered, other important issues fly under the radar. This year’s oil slick in Mauritius is one such example; the event was hardly mentioned in news-media, crowded out by stories covering the COVID-19 pandemic or the U.S presidential election.

This filtration of content in news-media has important consequences for the way in which humanitarian aid is distributed. Indeed, the amount of news coverage that a humanitarian crisis receives is a determinant factor in the level of assistance that it receives from the international community (Olsen et al. 2003). Naturally, crises that receive the most media coverage reach the largest audience, meaning that they tend to produce the highest level of outreach and humanitarian support. In effect, those crises that aren’t considered ‘sensational’ may be deprived of this assistance because of the low coverage they receive in the media. This was the case in 2016, as famine struck Eritrea. Despite affecting nearly two million people, the famine was crowded out of international news by other stories, and consequently only meager amounts of aid were granted to alleviate the crisis (Care 2017).

In a broader sense, the preferential treatment of ‘sensational’ content in news-media influences the way in which governments respond to foreign crises. That is, news-media plays an important role in forming the domestic opinion within a country, meaning that it influences the issues that shape a nation's political agenda. This is particularly true with regards to international events, as one’s knowledge about the world outside of their home country is based mainly on their consumption of news-media (Mccombs 2014). When media producers decide whether or not to provide coverage on a humanitarian crisis, therefore, they are helping to shape the national political response to that crisis, which might involve acts of diplomacy or military intervention (Robison, 1999).

In summary, it is crucial to understand that news-media does not provide an impartial perspective on the events taking place around the globe. Instead, the stories seen in the news are specifically chosen in order to excite and interest viewers. This means that, despite the amount of human suffering occurring within them, some humanitarian crises may not even be covered by mainstream news-media. One of the best ways for an individual to overcome this challenge is by diversifying their consumption of news-media. By drawing from a variety of sources with different points-of-view, one may be able to see past the ‘sensational’ content that dominates mainstream news-media. Al-Jhazeera, for example, will not cover the same humanitarian crises as The Financial Times or Le Monde.


Works Cited:

Care Staff. ''Suffering in Silence: the 10 most under-reported humanitarian crises of

2016'' Care International.

Livingston, Steven. ''Suffering in Silence: Media Coverage of War and famine in the

Sudan'' The Brookings Institution, 1996.

McCombs, Maxwell. Setting the agenda: the mass media and public opinion. Polity

Press, 2014.

Olsen, Gorm et al. ''Humanitarian Crises: What Determines the Level of Emergency

Assistance? Media Coverage, Donor Interests and the Aid Business'' Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Robinson, Piers. ''The CNN Effect: Can the News Media Drive Foreign Policy?''

Cambridge University press, 1999.


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