The news media cover humanitarian crises selectively. Events associated with clear, dramatic imagery, such as the 2020 Beirut port explosion, often receive intense global news coverage. By contrast, protracted humanitarian crises that are more difficult to access and explain to audiences, such as the civil war in Yemen that has been raging since 2014, are often scarcely reported — even if the level of need is far greater.

This matters, we often assume, because media attention influences how governments allocate humanitarian aid. Specifically, it appears to help explain why some UN appeals for humanitarian aid are almost fully supported — such those for Iraq (92% of the UN target) and Lebanon (84%) — while others receive a fraction of the required funding, such as the crises in Venezuela (24%) and South Sudan (10%).

This assumption has been fueled by previous research identifying clear correlations between the amount of news coverage a crisis receives and government aid allocations. For example, one study of US foreign disaster assistance showed that every additional news story in the New York Times about a disaster was associated with an additional aid allocation of half a million dollars.

But does news coverage really make a material difference to the amount of humanitarian aid a crisis receives? Or are we confusing correlation with causation? At a time when donor funding is failing to keep pace with rapidly escalating levels of humanitarian need, these are important questions. The answers can help ensure humanitarian assistance gets to where it is most needed.

Read the full article about news coverage influencing emergency aid by Martin Scott, Kate Wright, and Mel Bunce at Nieman Lab.