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Aid agencies and the media: uneasy but necessary bedfellows

Reporters and producers descend to tell the story of Save the Children’s  response to the floods in Pakistan in Sukkur district, Sindh.  With tri-pods, cameras, notepads and microphones they jostle to get the best shot, to get the best story.

Today in Sukkur, television news crews and photographers report on a basic health clinic we helped set up in the grounds of a school — now home to over 2,000 flood-affected people.

From nine-to-five seven days a week, people line up to see a doctor supported by Save the Children.  Medicines are dispensed, free of charge, to those who need them, mainly for diarrhoea, malaria and skin infections.

It’s early morning, around ten thirty, when the first of the media crews arrive.   A television producer asks a female doctor at work in the clinic to join him on a walk through of the camp.  Media like this sort of thing.  They want to tell the story through the eyes of an expert on the ground— in this case a medical expert.

But still I raise an eyebrow.  Can you imagine a journalist in the UK waltzing into a clinic, intruding on a doctor-patient consultation and asking them, however politely, to take a stroll around the block?

Now, at this point I should make one thing clear.  I’m not criticising the media.  In humanitarian emergencies they’ve got a job to do, and on the whole they do it well.

The fact is aid agencies and media help each other tells stories in emergencies.  We share information – it’s a symbiotic relationship.  But the way we tell stories is different.  For example, I’m not permitted to film or photograph anyone without his or her consent.  If I wish to use an image of a child in a story or blog post I must record their name and pertinent details, such as their age.  Last but not least I must have the consent of the child’s parent, or guardian.  Standard stuff, right?

Not for media.  Admittedly some go to great lengths to obtain important personal information about the people they interview, film, or photograph.  But not all do, and that’s a problem, since putting a name to a face helps humanise the person affected rather than generically labelling them “victims” of disaster.

So, how much influence do aid agencies have in helping to shape media’s reporting of disaster?  Short answer: a fair amount.

Let me give you one example.  CNN filmed Save the Children aid worker Claire Sandford as she visited camps for homeless people in Sukkur district this week.  After filming was complete Claire called saying she remembered CNN filmed a naked child, and could I contact the journalist asking them not use that image in their story.

Like most aid agencies we don’t use images of children that are demeaning, or degrading.  I’m sure you’d agree that’s a sensible policy.  After all how would you feel if someone poked a camera in the direction of your naked child?  Where’s the dignity  and respect?

So, I called the CNN journalist and asked they not use the footage of the child in the story.   “Yeah, it didn’t occur to me at the time, but we thought it was wrong when we edited it together.  So we didn’t include it in the story,” emailed CNN Correspondent Kyung Lah.  End of story.

Back to the broader point about working with media in humanitarian disasters, it’s clear media attention on the floods has helped to galvanize international donor support.  A good thing too.  Over the next six months Save the Children want to reach two million people — one million of them children — with aid, including food and shelter.   To get there we must raise $55 million, and that’s why we muster all possible media attention on our response to the Pakistan floods.

But back at the health clinic try explaining that to the mother whose child suffers from acute watery diarrhoea while the news crew go walkabout with the clinic’s doctor, or the mother whose child suffers from a horrendous head-to-toe body rash.  I’d bet they’d trade news crews and media coverage for immediate access to a doctor and medicines for their children.

But we have to be pragmatic.  As much as we’d like to live in a world where humanitarian disasters don’t happen, they do.  The donor community has finite resources to give to aid agencies, and in order to save the lives of children and families in Pakistan we need public support.  One way to get that support is to generate worldwide media coverage.

Find out more about how we’re responding to the Pakistan floods

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