How many of us know anything about the Chinese famine under Mao between 1959 and 1961? It was the greatest humanitarian crisis in numbers of deaths of the late 20th century – and yet it went unreported. There are no images and forty years later it was still not officially mentioned – just referred to as ‘three difficult years’.


The Rwandan genocide garnered plenty of Western attention by its 10th anniversary (and will no doubt gather more in this year’s 20th anniversary) but went largely unreported whilst it was happening in 1994.


Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and was widely reported with plentiful information in the media about victims and the aftermath, both at the time and in following years. Hurricane Stan happened the same month in nearby Guatemala, with a similar scale of damage and death toll, but who remembers that or even heard of it at the time?


If we want to be responsible world citizens and not simply allow the media to choose where to place our empathy and attention, we need to explore how the media reports distant suffering and how we can engage with faraway others.This is particularly relevant for those who work in the field of humanitarian aid, as attracting this media coverage in order to garner public support is a keystone of their work.


The reporting from the Biafran war in the 1960s was a turning point. Here, black and white images of extreme suffering provoked worldwide attention and an explosion of public sympathy.

Similarly the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s was one most well-known famines and also one of the most misunderstood because of the way the media utilized powerful and disturbing images.


While there may have been short-term benefits of raising public awareness both in Biafra and Ethiopia, ultimately the reporting and the way that the NGOs used these potent and powerful images may have done more harm than good.


Because we were reliant upon the media and some well-meaning NGOs to convey this distant suffering, the public in some ways became complicit in the distortions and unintended outcomes from objectifying anonymous victims of tragedy in order to raise funds and portray sensation.


Media can sometimes fail to give humanity to tragedies, leading to a commodification of suffering or what is known sometimes as ‘the pornography of poverty’. Part of this denying the humanity of others is that our media employ double standards – so that we would never use this kind of nameless anonymous victim or intrusion into privacy in our own societies.


Despite carefully constructed codes by the Red Cross and others, I have seen crass examples such as filming the moments of a starving child’s death or a cameraman and photographers who walk up and down rows of suffering victims to find the ‘best pictures’ - one reporter even calls it ‘instant coffee journalism’.


Let’s be clear. It’s not that we don’t know how to report stories of individuals with names and identities. For example, during the Australian floods in 2011 the coverage was about identifiable families and their individual stories.  Meanwhile however, reports of flooding in Bangladesh and in South America around the same time were just a mass of nameless victims.


The challenge is exactly what Stalin points to – that while we can understand statistics intellectually, we are not wired to relate to them. To feel empathy, we need to engage with individuals and their stories, otherwise we dehumanise their suffering. We need to think long and hard about why we can identify with individual tragedies in Western societies while reporting similar crises in the developing world differently.

Suzanne Franks is a Professor of Journalism at City University in London. A former BBC TV journalist, she worked on programmes such as Newsnight and Panorama. Her research interests include women in the media, the reporting of international news and the history of the BBC.  Suzanne's most recent books include  'Reporting Disasters. Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media,'  and 'Women and Journalism'.


“A single episode of suffering and death is a tragedy– yet a million such deaths is a statistic.” It is not often that I quote from Josef Stalin, but on this occasion I think his observation is valid. As human beings we are attuned to care and identify with individual stories, whilst somehow our minds – and hearts - find it difficult to empathise and comprehend the scale of mass catastrophe. My passion as an academic is to understand how contemporary media reports faraway humanitarian crises. What is it that makes us turn on and turn off?


Invariably the media plays a role in constructing such crises to capture our attention. Because we are not present on the ground where these crises take place, we are dependent on media coverage as our only way to relate and understand them. If a crisis is not reported it does not exist except for those immediately affected: we have no other means of information. So why are certain stories told to us while we miss out some events altogether?

Humanitarian aid unloaded in Doruma Congo (julien_harneis on Flickr)



by S. Franks