Humanitarian crises: when and how to report

Journalists are humans too. We live and breathe stories, events and sometimes crises, so how does that come out in our reporting?

This was one of the topics covered by industry experts during a reality-based, in-depth and stimulating panel discussion on humanitarian crises moderated by MJ Proulx of the Humanitarian Coalition. The panel held during the INK+BEYOND/CAJ 2013 conference and featured 2005 Press Freedom Award winner Juliet O’Neill and CBC’s Washington correspondent Paul Hunter.

The conversation between the panel and the audience of newspaper delegates began with one question: Why are some humanitarian crisis covered while others are essentially ignored by the media?

O’Neill began by stating that although dozens, if not hundreds of crisis are currently underway and competing for attention, if the coverage doesn’t have a Canadian angle then it isn’t as likely to grab the attention of a news desk.

Hunter said this is something he has struggled with, because in his experience some stories are bigger than that connection. He encouraged selling a story to your editors using a news hook—if you feel a crisis aught to be covered—because once you are there you will find so many more stories that are worth telling.

“How can we ignore it, the stories with people’s lives in the balance, you tell those stories and it matters to people. You’ll hear the bigger stuff from the wires and it will be out there already… if you see it, make sure you tell it,” said Hunter.

This brought the panel to another interesting topic: How social media impacts what gets covered. Mainstream and social media social media are becoming increasingly integrated and interdependent, said O’Neill. The panelists commented that social media provides an opportunity to report on things that the mainstream media may not cover, but also, newspaper reporters can use it as a tool to find leads that help tell the stories.

But, O’Neill and Hunter both agreed that social media has obliterated the ‘line’ when it comes to the nature of graphic coverage, so journalists don’t have to be as weary in using suffering as a backdrop because ‘the bloody truth’ will be available—
perhaps not on your national news—but to those who seek it out.

Hearing anecdotes of the panelist’s own experiences brought about a conversation on how to deal with what humanitarian reporters see and experience while on scene.

“I have to get all this stuff I’m seeing here out, people have to know… sometimes you want to scream ‘look at this’,” said Hunter, who followed by saying you can worry about it later, while you are there it is your job to get the coverage if you want to make a difference with your storytelling.

“My experience, for all the crap that we put up with there and the hard days we had, it was the most satisfying work I’ve done in my 30 years in the business because we saw a direct result of what we did,” said Hunter.

“Rarely you see results from your reporting in this business, you just hope people learn something from what you’ve said.”