Rachel Pulfer from Journalists for Human Rights talks about the importance of the local fixer network at the RRJ's recent conference, "Covering disaster: A critical lens"/Photo by Sherry Li

Rachel Pulfer from Journalists for Human Rights talks about the importance of the local fixer network at the RRJ’s conference on disaster reporting. (Sherry Li/RRJ)

Some news organizations believe that local and national news is more important to their audiences than what is happening globally—which becomes a challenge when reporting on disasters. This focus is based on cultural biases, and fails to acknowledge disasters in far-off places that could benefit from the attention of Western media, said Rachel Pulfer, the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights.

When reporting on disasters, newsrooms need to calculate what their audiences want to hear and how it will affect them, CBC managing editor Greg Reume said.

“Normally there needs to be a very significant loss of life [or] very extensive property damage [for us to cover international disasters],”  Reume said. Small disasters happening in Canada or the United States may receive the same or more coverage than large-scale international disasters, he added, saying that it is biased in favour of the impact on Canadians.

This bias goes as far as to determine what disaster is worth covering based on what country is affected, Athena Masson, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Climate Lab, said. Masson studies hurricanes and other severe weather events.

“If it’s mostly a developed country or a high-powered country, such as the United States or England, that’s more than likely to get on the news compared to maybe an earthquake in the middle of Iran or Afghanistan,” she said.

But this type of coverage may be damaging to the affected areas. According to a report by CARE International titled, “Suffering in Silence: The 10 Most Underreported Humanitarian Crises of 2016,” getting the media’s attention can be critical for disaster victims because coverage attracts aid to the affected area. This phenomenon is known as “the CNN effect” because media attention and fundraising are closely related. The ideas suggests that watching people suffering on TV makes others want to donate to the community.

“I think you can make a link between ongoing media attention and sustained donor attention,” Pulfer said, adding that media coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the Syrian refugee crisis resulted in increased aid. 

The media should pay attention to these stories, not only because they can help, but because the average Canadian is interested in global natural disasters, Masson said.

“Natural disasters grab the attention of everyone because they are such big, devastating events, and they’re something that Canadians probably don’t experience,” she said. “It really does capture one’s attention so much more strongly, than let’s say, whatever’s happening in the political world.”

Studies show that news stories about natural disasters generate more viewers than any other topic, Masson said.

Canadian news organizations send reporters to cover international disasters depending on the magnitude or loss of life, Reume added.

“We went and covered the earthquake in Nepal a couple of years ago,” he said. “Canada doesn’t have a whole lot of ties to Nepal, but the early reports were that it was on a mammoth scale, and the calculation we made was that this is really going to be devastating.”

But some newsrooms are not always able to cover international tragedies.

Limited resources play a large role in preventing newsrooms from covering international disasters, Pulfer said.

“Often their network or outlet has radically scaled back its international coverage, or changed it in a way that has created a scenario where there’s a lot of parachute journalism—being sent in for a week or two to get a sense on the ground,” she added. One way to overcome these challenges is to use the local fixer network in the affected areas, Pulfer said, adding that network can become a collaborative resource for journalists because they will gain a better understanding of the affected area and the local community.