Students Question Media’s Role in Humanitarian Crises


Written by Cora Weissbourd

JOURNALISTIC integrity clashed with student idealism at NYU Wagner the other night (Sept. 22, 2011).

The panel discussion, “Humanitarian Emergencies: The Role of the Media,” evolved into a spirited debate around responsibility, technology, and reporting.

Many audience questions focused on how to attract media attention to the “right” causes, and avoiding exploiting crisis victims. For some of the experts on the panel, however, these questions missed the point:

Media outlets have no moral obligation to cover famines instead of Kim Kardashian’s wedding, explained panel moderator Allan Murray. The role of the media is not to “make people eat their vegetables,” he said.

Panelist Cath Turner detailed why some emergencies receive more attention than others: it’s about what people will watch. While viewers are weary of starving children in East Africa, an exploding nuclear reactor in Japan has an appealing “novelty factor.”

As someone who listened to the commentators’ back-and-forth, I agree that the role of the media is not to solve humanitarian emergencies. The value of journalism lies in truth-seeking, in finding stories and reporting facts. I do, however, take issue with the discussion event’s definition of value. To define a valuable story as a story that interests audiences ignores an obvious paradox: audiences learn what is newsworthy and valuable from the media.

In an era of citizen journalism, the media has taken on a new role that further highlights this question of value. Increasingly, non-journalists use technology and the internet to report stories. For the Sept. 22 panel, this raised alarming issues of information overload and authenticity. Professional journalists now must play the role of editor and gatekeeper. They must ask: What is real? What is worth seeing?

Sam Gregory, the director of WITNESS’s programs, offered a bridge between the media representatives and the student idealists. WITNESS’ mission is to use video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. Gregory offered suggestions for students interested in combining journalism and activism. For the curious, their tool kits are available here: