2nd November 2018
By Tom Law

The State of Humanitarian Journalism

On October 15, the Humanitarian News Research Network hosted the “Humanitarian Journalism Today” event, launching a major new report based on four years of research on how the media report on humanitarian issues. The reports’ contents were debated by a panel of leading humanitarian journalists that included: James Copnall (BBC World Service), Josephine Schmidt (IRIN), Stefanie Glinski (freelance), and Tom Law (Ethical Journalism Network).

Funding Humanitarian Journalism

The report raised a number of important issues and concerns about the state of humanitarian journalism. One of the most important was funding and the lack of resources for day-to-day reporting.

Stefanie Glinski, a freelance journalist and photographer described the small number of journalists in crisis zones such as South Sudan:

I’m meeting people on a daily basis who tell their stories of famine, drought etc. All of these people need to be heard, but there’s a gap between what’s happening on the ground and what’s getting in the news –  only selected stories make it into international reporting, and for that we need more reporters.

News organisations that report on humanitarian issues often rely on philanthropy and private foundations for their funding. Yet, foundation funding isn’t infinite, and the goals of most foundations differ from those of most news organisations. Introducing the report, author Martin Scott noted that some important news outlets had recently been forced to shut down after their foundation funding dried up.

Panellist Tom Law, Director of Campaigns and Communications at The Ethical Journalism Network, agreed that this funding could be problematic:

Just funding stories on a specific matter isn’t enough – foundations need to ensure the news organisations have the infrastructure to [maintain] their independence and to articulate their funding model to their audiences.

He added that foundation funding needs to go beyond providing one-off payments to help humanitarian news organisations cover their day-to-day costs, and to grow.

Gaps In Humanitarian Reporting

Another key concern in the report is the lack of reporting on particular topics in the humanitarian sector. Most notably, investigative humanitarian reporting and on reporting on gender.

Panellist Josephine Schmidt, Executive Editor at IRIN, the world’s oldest humanitarian newswire agreed, and argued there should be more variety in reports on humanitarian issues.  She said:

Reporting on humanitarian disasters is one strand of humanitarian news, but our responsibility as journalists is so much broader than that [we should be doing] coverage long before those disasters have happened and after they have happened.

For Schmidt, humanitarian journalists are responsible for telling affected populations’ stories. They need to play a key role in moving the story forward, figuring out the next steps, and avoiding easy but problematic tropes.

Schmidt argued that, due to the focus on spot updates, important stories go untold, including the scrutiny of billions of dollars in aid sector spending. She added that although IRIN’s audience is mainly in the humanitarian sector, this has not prevented them from reporting on technology, politics, international relations, social trends – even cats.

White Saviour Complex

James Copnall, a Newsday presenter at the BBC World Service News, argued that the relatively small space given by news organisations to humanitarian news reflects some of the financial constraints of reporting.

“Foreign news is difficult and expensive: not surprising to hear it’s not done well.”

He also denounced the “White Saviour Complex” in the coverage of Africa by many Western news outlets, which focus on international elites as the hero of stories and marginalise local communities in their reporting. Journalists should not be reliant on NGOs and aid respondents for their information, he argued.

Listen to the introduction from the report authors, Martin Scott, Kate Wright and Mel Bunce

Listen to the full panel discussion

Listen to the audience’s questions

Another News Story

The event was followed by a screening of the celebrated documentary, ‘Another News Story’ that follows journalists reporting on the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe. Introduced by director Orban Wallace and producer Verity Wislocki.


The next HNRN event –  Dr. Glenda Cooper’s play Aid Memoir, focusing on humanitarian disasters – will take place at City, University of London on 6th November. More information here

Screening of ‘Another News Story’

The film opens in 2015 in Greece as refugees arrive on the idyllic island of Lesbos and follows refugees into Hungary and Croatia and across Europe to a hoped-for sanctuary. Since 2015 the current refugee crisis has flooded every news and media outlet across the globe.

Another News Story takes a unique approach to capturing this narrative. While still giving a ground-floor perspective of migrants fleeing Syria and Turkey and their struggle to find a country where they are welcome, director Orban Wallace simultaneously turns the camera on the journalists and the role they play in representing the crisis to the world.

Wallace’s gripping debut feature raises important questions about what happens behind the camera, and how the life cycle of a news story starts and grows.

As part of the EJN’s Ethics in the News series of events in partnership with the Frontline Club, the EJN screened Another News Story followed by a Q&A with director and producer Orban Wallace, producer Verity Wislocki, and forced migration researcher Ahmad al-Rashid on Wednesday 4th April 2018.

The Q&A was moderated by the Chair of the Ethical Journalism Network by Dorothy Byrne, who is the Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4 and featured director and producer Orban Wallace, producer Verity Wislocki, forced migration researcher Ahmad al-Rashid.