Charitable Advertising, Media, and Public Perception
Posted on March 20, 2011 at 10:20 am
This recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Hiding the Real Africa: Why NGOs prefer bad news, highlights a trend with media coverage of aid and development issues. According to their article:
“And now for some good news out of Africa. Poverty rates throughout the continent have been falling steadily and much faster than previously thought, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The death rate of children under five years of age is dropping, with “clear evidence of accelerating rates of decline,” according to The Lancet. Perhaps most encouragingly, Africa is “among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions,” according to the McKinsey Quarterly.
Yet US journalism continues to portray a continent of unending horrors. Last June, for example, Time magazine published graphic pictures of a naked woman from Sierra Leone dying in childbirth. Not long after, CNN did a story about two young Kenyan boys whose family is so poor they are forced to work delivering goats to a slaughterhouse for less than a penny per goat. Reinforcing the sense of economic misery, between May and September 2010 the ten most-read US newspapers and magazines carried 245 articles mentioning poverty in Africa, but only five mentioning gross domestic product growth.”
The author goes on to say:
“But the main reason for the continued dominance of such negative stereotypes, I have come to believe, may well be the influence of Western-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid groups like United Nations agencies. These organizations understandably tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on convincing people how much remains to be done. As a practical matter, they also need to attract funding. Together, these pressures create incentives to present as gloomy a picture of Africa as possible in order to keep attention and money flowing, and to enlist journalists in disseminating that picture.”
This is an issue I’ve talked about before concerning the messaging in nonprofit advertising. In my post Nonprofit advertisements: What message are we sending? I show examples from recent nonprofit advertising campaigns. My conclusion:
“Having seen these ads, the average person could easily walk away believing that all of the developing world is a senselessly violent place and that the best way to help is to give them stuff. I complain a lot about the media oversimplifying or incorrectly portraying aid. Unfortunately, nonprofits rely heavily on stereotypes and over-simplification as well.”
These stereotypes can be extremely difficult to break. The VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas) research, The Live Aid Legacy (pdf), found that the impressions created by that fund raising effort still impact the British public’s understanding of the developing world. Commonly held beliefs include:
Starving children with flies around their eyes: 80% of the British public strongly associate the developing world with doom-laden images of famine, disaster and Western aid. Sixteen years on from Live Aid, these images are still top of mind and maintain a powerful grip on the British psyche.
Victims are seen as less than human: Stereotypes of deprivation and poverty, together with images of Western aid, can lead to an impression that people in the developing world are helpless victims. 74% of the British public believe that these countries “depend on the money and knowledge of the West to progress.”
False sense of superiority and inferiority: The danger of stereotypes of this depth and magnitude is the psychological relationship they create between the developed and the developing world, which revolves around an implicit sense of superiority and inferiority.
Powerful giver and grateful receiver: The Live Aid Legacy defines the roles in our relationship with the developing world. We are powerful, benevolent givers; they are grateful receivers. There is no recognition that we in Britain may have something to gain from the relationship.
Confidence in out-of-date knowledge: Researchers remarked on the respondents’ confidence in such one-dimensional images. British consumers are not hesitating or seeking reassurance for their views. Unconsciously accumulated images of the developing world have led to a certainty on the part of consumers that they have all the facts.
And now I wonder about the impact of the media coverage and charity appeals surrounding the recovery efforts in Japan. Has the coverage adequately shown that, given the magnitude of the disaster, the Japanese government has done a good job of responding? Yesterday’s situation report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) states:
“Meanwhile damaged roads, airports and ports are gradually being repaired. But delivery of relief goods sent in from around Japan to evacuees and survivors still remains difficult due to shortages of fuel and transport vehicles. International aid organizations in the affected areas say that most basics are being provided and there are only pockets of people still without assistance. NGOs such as MSF and Save the Children are focusing on getting to especially remote areas or on providing specialist help to the elderly or young children.”
And here’s a quote from Oxfam Japan
“The Japanese state has the means to reach 99 per cent of the population, but there will always be some who need more specific assistance.”
Is this the same message that the public is receiving from the media and nonprofit advertising? What have you seen?
A Tragedy of the Commons in Selling Tragedy – Views from the Center – another recent article on this same topic.
The boy who cried crisis – Aid Thoughts – And another post discussing the Columbian Journalism Review Article