Forgotten disasters? A longitudinal analysis of the Flemish news media coverage of international humanitarian crises
Media and in particular news have a vital role to play in our understanding of the world. In other words news language has a particular signifying power, a power to represent events in particular ways (Fairclough, 1995: 2). However, in our increasingly globalizing society there is a significant decline in international news coverage by the Western media (e.g. Hallin, 1996: 255; Thussu, 2004: 47) accompanied by a drop in the public interest in foreign news. In addition, the amount of foreign news consumed by the audience is (defined by content) as focusing on spectacular events, elite persons, hard facts, violence and conflict, in other words an inadequate, negative, and stereotypical portrayal (Rampal, 2002: 111). It seems that the news media give an incomplete representation of the world. This PhD project wishes to evaluate some of these news trends within a longitudinal perspective. The focus lies on international humanitarian crises, defined by the United Nations as any situation in which there is an exceptional and widespread threat to human life, health or subsistence (ECP Alert, 2005: 54). We consider a disaster as an unforeseen and often sudden event that causes great damage, destruction and human suffering. Though often caused by nature, humanitarian crises can have human origins, as is the case with wars and civil disturbances. In the literature most attention is paid -disproportionately- to this latter aspect of humanitarian crises. The project deals with a number of intertwining aspects including the media attention international humanitarian crises receive, the broader social and political influence of this particular kind of media coverage (hence the concepts ‘compassion fatigue’ which refers to a diminishing public concern with foreign disasters and the much criticized ‘CNN effect’ that conceives an influence of the media on the foreign affairs policy) and thirdly the production component by interviewing journalists about their everyday practices and selection criteria. To put the coverage on humanitarian crises into its right perspective, we feel it is necessary to conduct a more contextualizing study on the evolution of the amount of foreign news in the Flemish newspapers during the past 30 years. An analysis of why some crises seem to be neglected and how disasters in general are covered should provide some insights in the approach and position of the news media regarding international humanitarian crises.