Sven Torfinn - PANOS

What makes news humanitarian? (Op-ed)

The dilemmas of reporting on suffering

On April 4, horrible pictures of the suffering of victims of a chemical gas attack in Syria’s Idlib province seemingly moved US President Donald Trump to dramatically change his policy on Syria. Donald Trump himself claimed that, ‘the attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me – big impact… Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack’.

This obviously raises important questions about the relationship between foreign policy and the news media.

But for us, as researchers interested in the relationship between humanitarianism and journalism, it also invites more abstract questions about the reporting of humanitarian affairs – or what it means for news to be humanitarian. Does it need to cover humanitarian issues? Might it also refer to news which is informed by humanitarian values or which promotes humanitarian action? Answering such questions is important for disentangling some of the various dilemmas and tensions journalists face.

Unfortunately, the concept of ‘humanitarian news’, whilst commonly used, is seldom defined. In an attempt to provide some clarity, we offer three distinct definitions of humanitarian news: (1) news about humanitarian crises and actors, (2) news adopting a humanitarian ethic and (3) news as humanitarian practice. These categories concern the nature, ethics and purpose of journalism respectively – or the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of news.

News about humanitarian crises and actors

Firstly, and most obviously, humanitarian news may be understood as a specific ‘newsbeat’ – that is, as all forms of news coverage about humanitarian crises, such as ‘natural’ disasters and armed conflicts and those actors who respond to them. Matthew Powers, for example, has defined it in terms of its ‘primary subject matter’, including the reporting of ‘humanitarian organisations’ and ‘humanitarian events’. Similarly, Glenda Cooper and Simon Cottle have described humanitarian news simply as, ‘the reporting of humanitarian disasters’.

Within this definition, news coverage of the chemical gas attack in Syria certainly qualifies as humanitarian because it reported on extreme human suffering. The key tension here, though, is why some instances of human suffering are reported, and other are not. In other words, what shapes the ‘beat’ of humanitarian news? Is it the scale of suffering, its cultural proximity or its geopolitical significance? Or other factors entirely?

News adopting a humanitarian ethic

Secondly, humanitarian journalism may be defined as news which conforms to a broader understanding of humanitarianism: as an ethic of kindness, benevolence and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings. Sallyanne Duncan and Jackie Newton, for example, describe humanitarian reporting as that which has, ‘the human connection at the heart of story’.

It is this dimension of the news coverage of the chemical weapons attack in Syria which allegedly prompted Trump’s apparent humanitarian concerns. As Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said, ‘the world recoiled in horror at babies writhing and struggling to live. And who could avert their gaze — and that includes our very tough, very resolute, very decisive president’.

The key question here, however, is why these particular images of suffering prompted a sudden flare-up of compassion for Trump and coverage of the 2013 chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta, did not? Can news images alone be responsible for motivating action, or might they just provide a pretext for implementing pre-determined policy changes?

News as humanitarian practice

A final way of defining humanitarian news is as a form of journalism which seeks to put into practice the principles of humanitarianism. In this definition, the humanitarian focus refers, not to the content of news, but to journalists’ perceptions of the purpose of their work, or their role perceptions.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) defines humanitarianism as, ‘the independent, neutral and impartial provision of relief to victims of armed conflicts and natural disasters’. If emphasis is placed on the first half of this definition and the notions of independence, neutrality and impartiality, then a humanitarian journalist may perceive their role as being to act as an impartial witness to events; providing timely, accurate and objective information, both for victims of crises and for non-affected audiences.

By contrast, if a journalist places greater emphasis on the second half of the ICRC definition, and the idea of providing ‘relief to victims’, they may be more inclined to perceive themselves as having a more active role to play in events. This may include advocating particular solutions, giving ‘voice to the voiceless’ or giving solace to the bereaved and traumatised.

In short, when covering humanitarian events in Syria and elsewhere, journalists face a dilemma. Should they seek to have a direct impact on the events they cover by trying to influence audiences to take action? Or should they seek only to record events and remain entirely impartial? Trump’s claim that his decision to authorize missile strikes against Assad was driven, in part, by the media coverage throws this dilemma into sharp relief – but makes it no easier to resolve.