This is an old piece, written around six years ago. Of late I have enjoyed (and been slightly mortified by) things I have written in the past…. I have been both amused with my innocence of yesterday, and disappointed in the cynical way in which I view today’s world. I am in the process of deciding whether this is a failure of mine or a reflection on the direction humanity has steered itself in…. In order to investigate I am re-reading old work (such as the paper posted below) and will in the near future decide weather I would come to the same conclusions as a slightly older, slightly more sleep deprived, and arguably wiser lady. I hope you enjoy:

What role does the media play in disasters and emergencies?
What strategies and approaches could be used to develop these roles further and for what reasons?

Living in the safety and comfort of the Western World it is easy to forget about the insecurities and suffering being endured by our fellow man every day of every year. In fact, for most Australian’s the closest they will get to malnutrition is a World Vision commercial, or participating in the “Forty Hour Famine.” Yes, it is the media that brings disasters and emergencies home to Australia and allows ordinary Australian’s to positively contribute to such disasters. It is the media that makes natural and humanitarian disasters, states of emergency, war and famine real to the developed world. The media also plays a number of other roles including the distribution of information and education, as well as providing a successful forum for fundraising to be undertaken. In 2000 the mass media attracted strong criticisms for their role in the Mozambique floods, journalists were accused of further endangering the lives of the flood victims while only presenting on one side of the tragedy. The mass media has been criticised for their one sided approach to a number of humanitarian emergencies and disasters across the globe, with emphasis being placed on the fact that global media outlets are almost exclusively owned by OECD countries , suggesting therefore that the agenda being pushed by news reports etc. is likewise representative of the OECD countries. The free media in the developing world has, however served an important role in allowing the people to hear alternative views to the government owned media which exists in the developing world spreading government propaganda.

In order to better develop the roles of the media strategies the global community needs to address the problem of unequal division of media outlets, and work to legalise freedom of press in every country. The role of the media in the Western World could be better developed through the employment of targeted campaigns and information released predicting disaster, such as the famine which always follows a drought, or the refugee migration which always follows civil war, using these to best represent the interests of the disaster victims, while best informing the rest of the world.

The mass media, is often criticised for presenting news coverage which is perceived as one sided, biased, propaganda, critical theorists however, would argue that while they believe that the media could in fact play this role, it need not necessarily be the way. ‘Theory is always for someone for some purpose,’ argues critical theorist Robert Cox (1986), as ‘the act of theorising is always political. ’ Critical theory stems from the notion that the very act of creating theories is in fact political through which some stand to gain and other stand to loose, and any one can potentially have vested interests. Critical theorists like Cox seek to question their short comings emerging from efforts of the Marxist tradition to attempt to understand how the sanguine ideas, promoting the total emancipation of people, by an earlier generation had proven to exceedingly poorly placed. With the Cox’s (1986) argument that ‘theory is always for someone for some purpose,’ in mind a critical theorist would question reports on political and economic situations which marginalize individuals groups, such as the civil war in Sudan or the reports written on the Apartheid during the 1990s, asking, ‘who stands to benefit from the positive/negative reporting on these peoples?’

Cox like all critical theorists believes that people are responsible for creating a social reality and as such, people are able, and responsible for changing this social reality when required. Cox would therefore argue that the media is an avenue through which people are able, and should, work towards changing the current social reality. For example, if the media can be used to make a positive impact of a bad situation, such as the humanitarian emergency which occurred in, the, by promoting fundraising for example, the people are responsible for making these changes happen. As people are, according to Cox, responsible for and capable of changing the social reality, and all people have their own personal agendas, any changes they make, any media coverage screened would therefore reflect this agenda, and would therefore be being made by someone for their purpose.

Kingsbury points out that due to the largely restricted ownership of media sources, including the fact that all major global media outlets are owned by OECD countries, and of those countries, the majority owned by the United States of America leads to biased one sided perceptions of global events. Throughout the developed and developing worlds links have been identified between government officials and media owners, which can clearly lead to political lead propaganda being distributed through the media. Kingsbury’s view in this case supports the critical theory perspective that politics and media, and the perspectives they broadcast are for some one for their purpose. In order to improve the role of the media in assisting in disasters and emergencies, the ownership of the global media sources needs to become more transparent, to help ensure that the broadcasts are not restricted to the views and opinions of a few.

Leaders of developing countries have been concerned about the portrayal of said developing states through the media. Humanitarian emergencies and disasters attract greater global attention than any of the more positive events that are occurring within the developing world. Leaders of developing countries as well as the citizens in their country have little or no say over what is broadcasted about them and by whom. When these reports have been negative the effects of the reports have spilled over into economic damage being done to the country, which, in times of disaster, can be more harmful to the state than any possible humanitarian aid resulting from the same report could possible mend. These concerns are not wholly without basis, one only needs to browse through the February 2008 edition of the New African counting the stories, to see the headlines screaming out, slavery, corruption, refugees, war, disaster and disease. The only news in Africa seems to be of emergencies and disasters all of which discourage trade and tourism to Africa, therefore damaging the country economically.

When humanitarian emergencies include the oppression, torture, starvation and genocide of a people by a dictatorship, or under an illegitimate government then the media, in its various forms provides such an outlet for the voices of the oppressed to be heard. While the various African governments subjugated Africa’s radio-ways and news papers during the 1980s spreading their own propaganda, the last fifteen years had shown increasing freedoms for the media. Radio based media, provide in times of disaster and/or emergency the only source of information for rural and poverty stricken people around the world. In Africa for example, since the end of the Cold War community and private radio stations have increased thirty fold, from 10 in the whole of Africa in 1985 to a huge 300 by the year 2000. In times of crisis the radio media has proven to be the only source of information and education to the majority of people, as Robert Guest argued “most Africans cannot afford a daily paper but every village has a radio.” The radio media plays another important role here, in times of war, when schools are closed and literacy levels low, people can still receive information without illiteracy forming a barrier. Damien Kingsbury points out also that as radio is inexpensive to use, and own, and “reaches over longer or more inhospitable distances than either print of television media.”

One of the most important roles played by the media in times of national emergency, such as the apartheid for example, Kingsbury argues is that of a “watchdog”, able to report on and comment about public affairs. Despite the censorship laws which exist in many countries, such as the law in the Congo which delivers the death penalty to any one who commits the offence to “insult the army”, there were no reports in 2001 of African journalists being killed as a result of their reporting. Guest agrees with Kingsbury on the matter of the independent media, at times of national emergency playing the role of a community ‘watchdog’ arguing that independent journalists tend to be far more effective when it comes to “exposing corrupt officials, criticising government policies and generally holding their rulers to account.” In South Africa for example, the ANC as a liberation movement was constantly praised by foreign media for its position in opposition to the apartheid government. When the ANC developed into a government however, the media began to discuss it in terms of its abilities to govern the nation, which was a sting to the ANC leaders.

In his discussion of the floods which devastated Mozambique in the year 2000 David Shukman explained that the wide media coverage of natural disaster led to huge amounts of aid being sent to the country, reaching $400m for construction, in addition to various charities distributing much needed food and medicine. This aid, in the long term, has been of great assistance to the people of Mozambique, Shukman’s concern lies in the short term affects the media presence had on those struggling in the floods. Shukman pointed out that media helicopters are too small to be used as a part of rescue missions, and were used to fly in close to the tree-tops where flood victims were clinging to escape the waters. Shukman stated that “the talk among many cameramen, aid-workers and military aircrews was that the powerful downdraft from the rotor-blades of so many aircraft might have endangered the flood victims themselves” as many of these victims would have been too tired and weak to withstand the air turbulence and hold on to the tree branches.

The media presence in Mozambique was therefore a risk to those same people whom the aid given was intended to help. Is this then a risk that we are, as a global community ready to make? Without putting the minority of flood victims at risk however, the majority would never have been in a position to receive aid. The media comes in a number of forms, print media, television, radio and of course the internet. A short online search of the Mozambique flooding disaster bears a number of agencies and organizations which will allow people to make financial donations to the cause. The Save the Children Fund for example has been actively working with people in Mozambique since 1984, a feat that would not have been possible without the support of the mass media. For all the criticisms borne by the media, over the last three decades the exposure, while perceived by some, particularly political leaders portrayed in a less than flattering light, as being overly negative, has allowed aid to reach those most affected by humanitarian disasters and emergencies.

When it comes to man made disasters and emergencies, nothing is bigger than the Vietnam War. The media played an important role in the Vietnam War as a ‘watchdog’ as Kingsbury would say. The Vietnam War was in the words of Michael Arlen, the “first living-room war,” the first “television war.” Mass media, in the form of the television, which had become available to the masses in the West brought the horrific stories of the war into people’s homes, forcing people to take notice and acknowledge the devastation of war in ways they have never done in the past. It is argued that although less than one quarter of film broadcasts of the Vietnam War showed any images of the dead or wounded, simply bringing the war to people in their homes led to the war losing public support across the globe. The media’s role in Vietnam Burnette argues, has been largely overrated, while she acknowledges that the media through televised the war in a way that no war had been broadcasted before, she questions the idea that telecasts of the war brought about a reduction in public support of the war. Burnette hypothesises, if the media truly “brought home” the horror stories of the war, why did eight years pass from escalation in 1965 to the cease-fire in 1973?

The Vietnam War is not the only disaster to be brought home by the media. Disasters and emergencies as far reaching as floods in Mozambique, oil spills in Alaska, and genocide in Eastern Europe are brought to us in the comfort of our own home curtesy of the media. Seeing the existence of such disasters and being given accurate and unbiased accounts of the issues are however, two very different things. The media from the perspective of humanitarian intervention yields positive results for the victims of civil war, natural disasters and unforseen emergencies as use of the media as an educational source of information to the global community allows people from around the world to send aid where appropriate, or peace keeping forces if required. One could argue certainly, that a biased coverage of the floods in Mozambique is better than no coverage at all, for what we do not know, we cannot change. Socially speaking, allowing the victims of disaster a voice, the overall aim of the independent media, allows victims to develop for themselves a sense of pride and dignity, through which they will be able to achieve better positions economically and socially, through requesting aid or gaining independence from a dictatorship. In order to better improve the role of the media as a voice for oppressed victims of disaster, the global community must demand freedom of speech for any nation, ethnic group, religious group, or political parties who are unjustly silenced. Until freedom of speech is granted to each and every group and person, then the media will remain the tool of its current few owners and the unequal distribution of media ownership will continue to hamper the media’s ability to fulfil its role as the unbiased voice of the victims of disaster.


Ankomah, Baffour “New African” IC Publications, 7 Coldbath Square, London ECIR 4LQ, 42nd Year, February 2008, No 470

Burnette, Elizabeth J., “The 6:00 Follies: Hegemony, Television News, and the War of Attrition,” the University of Virginia, 2003,, cited August 22, 2008

Eschle, Catherine and Maiguashca Bice, Critical Theories, International Relations and ‘the Anti-Globalisation Movement’, New York: Routlege 2005

Guest, Robert, The Shackled Continent, London: Macmillan, 2005

Hallin, Daniel, “Vietnam on Television,” Museum of Broadcast Communication, 2001 online edition,, cited August 20, 2008

Hanly, S., “Mozambique Flood,” Save the Children Fund, 2000,, cited August 19, 2008

Hettne, Bjorn, Sustainable Development in a Globalized World: Volume 1, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Kingsbury, Damien, Political Development, New York: Routledge, 2007

Shukman, David, “Media’s Role in Human Disaster,” BBC UK, April 24, 2001. electronic version,, cited August 15, 2008

Remenyi, Joe, Kingsbury, Damien, McKay, John and Hunt, Janet, Key Issues in Development, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004