Immediately after a major natural disaster, relief flocks to the country in droves. The media turns their attention to what is happening on the ground, covering every minute detail of the event.
But what happens after the camera crews pack up and go home? To no one’s surprise, just because the attention is now elsewhere does not mean that the problems are over. Quite the contrary – while early donations are absolutely needed to provide immediate relief, the biggest problem lies in rebuilding the country.
Does the media affect relief work? Yes and no. While aid organizations will continue to work in Haiti long after the cameras have gone, the donations will not be as steady. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” applies perfectly in this scenario. But the fact is that when the media turns their attention to the disaster, things just get done. In 2005, only $2 million USD was donated to the American Red Cross for relief efforts in Pakistan after a massive earthquake. Today, however, the Red Cross has reported $78 million committed for relief efforts in Haiti. The difference? Media.
While there was continuous coverage of the Haiti earthquake, focusing mainly on the victims of the quake and on what needed to be done, coverage of the Pakistan earthquake was largely painted with a political brush, focusing on the country’s tumultuous relationship with India and not on the impact of the quake.
”When the media is out there running 800 numbers across the bottom of the screen, more money gets raised,” said Stephanie Kurzina, vice president for resource development at Oxfam America. ”We haven’t had that with the [Pakistan] earthquake the way we did with the tsunami. We don’t have George Bush and Bill Clinton out there encouraging people to give for this disaster.” (New York Times, 2005)
Disaster relief, unfortunately, has become a popularity contest. Rather than a targeted focus on what needs to be done, politics always inevitably plays a role in the way these disasters are covered. Countries that are in “good standing” tend to have more flattering coverage, as opposed to those who are not. This label inevitably affects the amount of relief aid donated to the cause, which in turn affects how the society will recover from the disaster. Without donations, it becomes difficult for relief organizations to help a country and it’s citizen’s recover from the devastation.
So what is the answer? Changing perceptions is not easy, and there is no simple solution. And, unfortunately, there is no one policy that can be implemented to bring about change. When it comes to monetary donations, policies have been attempted, with criticism. Foreign aid policies have been criticized in the past, with concerns about aid going into the hands of corrupt politicians and not to the people who need them.
Unfortunately, the answer is that the media needs to expand its horizons. Instead of focusing on mundane “oddball” stories, some of the focus should be shifted. This shift is a change that will take time.