On a recent Friday afternoon, I happily engaged in my favorite nerdy end-of-week work habit, the kind only indulged on a slow week in the world of disaster relief: catching up on the week’s news in disasters while listening to talk radio.
While perusing various news sites, I happened to catch an interesting interview with Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, whose renowned work focuses primarily on behavioral economics, which is more or less the study of why we do the crazy things we do. During this very interesting discussion on cognition and biases, the subject of the media briefly arose, in the context of how we decide what issues are important to us. Kahneman noted that we “tend to judge the importance of issues by how frequently they are mentioned.”
Perhaps your immediate reaction is to say, well, that seems obvious enough. It probably feels somewhat intuitive that most of us conflate the importance of a certain topic -- such as the national debt or the release of Apple's iPhone 4S -- with the amount of time we hear or see the subject filtered through any of our media lenses, be it national television, social media, print news, radio, etc. The very existence of the word “trending” makes one feel like we’ll probably never escape the Kardashians.
But it’s worth thinking carefully about that statement when we are talking about issues on the global humanitarian stage. Does it matter how much media attention a humanitarian crisis gets?
The Pew Research Center published a report last month that gauges how often the media reported the stories the public says were of most interest in 2011. In other words, how well did supply and demand meet when it comes to what the media says is important to follow, compared to what the public feels is important to follow? According to the report, the Japan earthquake and tsunami was the story most closely followed by the American public last year, and the media mirrored that interest in the amount of time devoted to the story, until late March, when NATO airstrikes hit Libya.
Over $161 million in aid was donated to Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake. A generous and interested public responded to the needs of displaced persons living in an advanced industrial nation. On a much larger scale, after three months of virtually non-stop media coverage after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, NGOs and charities received some $4 billion for the humanitarian response in Port-au-Prince.
I find it enormously encouraging that the American public proved, in statistically sound data, that more people really do care about those who are impacted by disasters than about the exploits of reality TV stars. At least that’s what the numbers say. While it’s always difficult to attribute direct causality, media coverage clearly plays a substantial role in generating awareness and subsequent aid dollars available for life-saving interventions.
So, did you know that in the past month alone, conflict has escalated in the new country of South Sudan, Myanmar is taking small but significant steps to becoming a freer society, and in West Africa, chronic drought conditions, rising food prices, and declining food stocks are threatening the food security of an estimated 12 million people?
The year 2012 is bound to have its share of humanitarian crises, natural and man-made alike. In the spirit of new year resolutions and as we reflect on the second anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, I’d encourage us all to take a few minutes every day or week to delve into the less-covered news events that dramatically impact the lives of millions of vulnerable people in the world. Choose to be someone who uses your sphere of influence -- Facebook, Twitter, your personal blog, and actual conversations with your friends, family, and coworkers -- to bring attention to the stories that never make it to page one. It’s the easiest intervention we can do to alter the balance of supply and demand.
Read related posts about the two-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake: From heartbreak to hope in Haiti: Two years in photos and Ask an aid worker about Haiti