Famine: The line between raising awareness and ‘vulture reporting’

After four months of being showered with pictures in the media of starving children from the Horn of Africa, I can’t hep asking myself whether these pictures still make a difference? Do they make us more generous and willing to give aid?

It is difficult to measure such impact but many would argue that these pictures are needed to raise awareness. From a cynical but perhaps realistic point of view, we in the West don’t care very much if people are dying of hunger in Africa. Unless the media shocks us with pictures of emaciated children with bloated stomachs, we won’t act.

Few would argue that it is anything but noble to try and raise awareness of famine, it is. But questions remain; Are 10 pictures of people dying in hunger better than one? If one picture of a dying child can’t make us act, can 100 pictures do it?

Has ethics gone out the window?

There have been debates on the issues of photographing famine. Some claim that journalist and media only portray pictures of famine because they profit from it. Famine is very graphic to its nature and thus sells a lot of papers.

There are indeed recent accounts where journalists have been overheard making tactless comments. One British producer was quoted in an article on AlertNet after being audible in the background of a broadcast recording saying: “Lift up his arm so we can see how thin it is.” The same article also reported a journalist saying: “This one’s not even skinny”.

What is disturbing is not so much that the media profit from this, but the fact that many of the people in these photos die just hours after the pictures are taken.

If you were to walk up on a person lying alone on the street dying from starvation in the UK, would you take a picture of him and then walk away saying: I’m helping this person by raising awareness in the media.

You probably wouldn’t because it’s illegal, but mostly because it would be horribly unethical. Why then is it justifiable to act this way towards a person dying of hunger in Somalia?

The vulture and the baby

In 1993 photojournalist Kevin Carter took a picture of a Sudanese child. The child was lying in the dirt after trying to reach a feeding centre. She was clearly taking her last breaths when a vulture landed nearby.  According to a Time article, Carter said that he waited 20 minutes to see if the vulture would flare its wings. He finally took a picture and then chased off the vulture. The child died.

Despite being heavily criticised, Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography the following year. Carter committed suicide in July 1994 after suffering from depression. The picture is very explicit but follow the link if you want to see it.

Could Carter have saved the child? Probably not but could he have tried? Absolutely.

Vulture reporting

There are those who argue that these kinds of photos are necessary. As Jonathan Jones put it in his article on The Guardian: “A photograph can put suffering on the front of your paper while you eat breakfast.”

Though admitting that there is a risk of merely inviting exhausted pity, Jones argues that a “picture tells the whole world what will happen across the region unless urgent international action comes immediately. Don’t look: act.”

The fact remains that photographing famine can make a photographer renowned and famous because of its explicit nature (See James Nachtwey). The fact that Carter won the Pulitzer Prize is proof of that.

Doesn’t this encourage journalists to report on famine for personal gains? Is it really the sole ambition to raise awareness and evoke action? Isn’t there also an element where journalists are just running around trying to get the best and most explicit story with no time to care for people? The same people they profit from photographing.

That’s at least what journalist Antonio Guterres told AlertNet: “All journalistic ethics went out the window as we raced around Dadaab, chasing after the head of the United Nations’ refugee agency.”

The article on AlertNet describes how international journalists descend on a famine stricken area like vultures ruthlessly competing for the best story. No consideration is taken to the people dying.

A hypothetical framework

There are different organisations that provide ethical guidelines for journalists. One common guideline is to only photograph victims of famine inside refugee camps were they have access to help. However, this is not always the case. Even if a person is in a refugee camp he or she may be unable to get help because the camp are often extremely overcrowded.

What if there was a legal framework that required journalists to help the people they’re photographing to the best of their abilities, a framework that would have obliged Carter by law to act and do his best to save that girl.

Can a photographer go around and help every famine victim he photographs, or is it practically impossible. To be able to do this, journalists would first of all have to limit the amount of people they photograph. Instead of photographing a hundred victims they would have to limit themselves to maybe three or four, crowds excluded.

I’m talking about the kind of help that would arrange transport to relative safety, the kind of help that would provide a week’s food, or just access to plain health care. Even if the victim is beyond help it matters a great deal to be able to let someone die in dignity, not in front a bird waiting for a meal.

Journalists are not rich and could probably not afford to give such help. The commissioner or media office on the other hand would. They make huge amounts of profit from posting pictures of starving children in Africa. Shouldn’t they be required to give some of these profits to aid? Not only through aid organisations but also by using their people on the ground, the journalists who have the opportunity to give immediate help. The journalists on the ground are after all the only people who would be able to try to save the individual life in front of the camera.

Some will surely argue that it wouldn’t make a difference to only help a few of the hundreds of thousands that starve. And, they will say, if journalists are supposed to moonlight as aid workers, how will they be able to preform their journalistic duties?

The girl and the jellyfish

There is an anecdote of a girl walking on the beach together with her dad. There are thousands upon thousands of jellyfish washed up on the shore. After walking a while the girl stops, picks one up and throws it back into the sea. The dad says: “don’t be silly there are hundreds of thousands jellyfish here, it won’t matter because you can’t save them all.” The girl answers: “yes to this jellyfish it does matter.”  

It would be a legal framework with huge pragmatic difficulties. However, it would be a way to reduce the ‘vulture reporting’ in famine stricken areas. It would even give psychological relief to the journalists. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress after coming home. Maybe because they never see the direct effects of the indirect help they are giving.

I still believe that journalists have the power to make a difference. I also think they should be given a legal framework that enables them to do good and ethical reporting. This would not only save individual lives but also increase the dignity of the person in front of the camera as well as the person behind it.

For more on this issue check out this article on Docha’s Network Blog.  

One thought on “Famine: The line between raising awareness and ‘vulture reporting’

  1. Pingback: News journalism: The world’s most cynical profession | Exodus Me

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