‘Embedded’ or aloof: Media’s choice in covering emergencies


In many disaster and conflict hot spots of the world, journalists and relief aid providers work closely together. There are times when journalists play good Samaritan and aid workers dabble as reporters. In the difficult field conditions of emergencies, this is understood and accepted.

But should journalists become ’embedded’ in humanitarian operations? If so, how impartial or independent would their coverage be?

This issue kept coming up during the Global Symposium+5 on ‘Information for Humanitarian Action’ in Geneva this week (22 – 26 Oct 2007). The majority aid officials and handful of journalists present didn’t always agree.

UN agencies and other humanitarian organisations increasingly recognise the power of media, especially broadcast television, to raise public awareness on emergencies. This, in turn, influences political commitments, aid donations and relief operations themselves.

But how close can the media get to aid agencies before they lose their sense of perspective and independent analysis? If journalists becoming embedded with the military in conflicts is frowned upon, what about media’s de facto embedding with humanitarian missions?

There was no consensus on the issue, but a few of us stressed on the need for independent media — independent of governments, aid agencies and other vested interests — to take stock of crisis situations and report, reflect and analyse on what they find.

The presence of nosy reporters might be an occasional irritant to some aid agencies, especially if they have things to hush up, but at the big picture level it can serve everyone’s interest — especially those of affected groups.

Alain Modoux, a former red cross official who went on to become an assistant director general of UNESCO, reminded us how governments often stand in the way of free flow of information on emergency situations. The reasons for such suppression vary: some don’t want to admit failures on their watch, and others fear public discussion and debate, especially at international level, on what is happening in their own country.

Governments can — and often do — bring pressure upon aid agencies to fall in line (or risk being thrown out). In such situations, it’s only the independent media that can take stock of rapidly changing situations and highlight the unmet needs and any disparities in the emergency response.

Then there is the media’s traditional watchdog role. The humanitarian sector is now the world’s largest unregulated industry – billions of dollars flow through the sector every year, most of it public funds (direct donations or taxes collected by governments). Yes, the aid agencies all audit their accounts and the UN has stringent regulations on how they can spend money. But there’s nothing like a bit of media scrutiny to keep everybody clean and honest…

Follow the money! This is what journalists are taught and trained to do – and with good reason. In emergency situations following the money often brings up instances of waste, corruption and mismanagement that aid agencies would rather not talk about.


Swiss journalist Edward Girardet (photo, above), who specialises in in media, humanitarian aid and conflict issues, has been making this point for a long time.

As he has written: “Humanitarianism should not ‘belong’ to any one group. What the international aid industry urgently needs is more hard-nosed and independent reporting.”

That is unlikely to happen when individual journalists are too cosy with aid workers or their bosses.

Ed was at the Geneva Symposium this week, once again making a case for a viable media watchdog capable of reporting the real causes behind humanitarian predicaments, including how the international community responds.

Read my June 2007 blog post quoting Ed Girardet: Can the media tame the alms bazaar?

In one intervention, I suggested that the media can become the ‘conscience’ of the humanitarian industry – to ensure transparency and accountability of resources, decisions and conduct.

Partnerships between media and aid workers is fine, as long as the media remain somewhat aloof and detached.

And it’s not the global media who can or will stay with the stories as recovery takes months or years. We all saw in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami how quickly the global media’s news interest went down.

In the long term, empowering the local journalists to ask the right questions and go in search of answers.

Read this blog post reproduced in Asia Media Forum

Read this blog post adapted in MediaHelpingMedia

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

2 thoughts on “‘Embedded’ or aloof: Media’s choice in covering emergencies”

  1. I dont see what this fuss is all about. we as journalists represent people,s right to know. we have to get the story somehow, and not bother too much about how. IF we have to follow all these ethical stuff, we will never file a single story in time. get real.

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