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Morality in Humanitarian Communications on a Slippery Slope

30th October 2008

There was a strong sense that 'humanitarian communications' is headed down an ethical slippery slope according to a panel of sociologists and media ethicists at POLIS's first panel for the Humanitarian and Development Communications project seminars.

Prof. Emeritus Stan Cohen, LSE, Prof. Paul Gilroy, LSE and Prof. Jean Seaton, University of Westminster spoke on the topic of 'Humanitarian Communications in the Global Media Age', chaired by Professor Lilie Chouliaraki on October 30th at the LSE.

Humanitarian communication aims at making us care about people we have never known and will never meet. Usually initiated by aid organizations or non-governmental organizations, it has become more prevalent in the news media in the past decade.

Prof. Cohen began the discussion by evaluating the reaction of the reader to the suffering 'distant other' through appeals, direct mailings, communications for fundraising, and media reports or articles. Why was the response to these appeals becoming so inadequate?

Cohen argued that images of suffering have become a part of the spectacle and no longer provided an appropriate image of the pain, cruelty, or injustice itself. Without context, the audience could not empathize with the sufferer, eventually leading to 'compassion fatigue' where once shocking images lose their impact because they numb peoples' senses.

The new tactic of NGOs to combat this declining interest is to get away from the 'guilt trip', using a "post-moral" language, argued Cohen. The current focus on pragmatic and aesthetic outcomes through direct appeals for money to fund specific projects deliberately buried the moral and ethical appeal.

Prof Seaton followed this decline in morality through the movement of NGOs into the vacuum of many news organizations as their newsroom staff faced cuts. Seaton argued that NGOs were becoming big businesses, needing to show suffering to a mass audience to broaden their appeal for philanthropic dollars.

Seaton dated this trend to 1984 when the media covered the Ethiopian famine – a famine of 'biblical' proportions - as a seminal moment in philanthropy and humanitarian communications. The audience was so moved by this event that news agencies such as the BBC were flooded with unsolicited donations. From this point on, news agencies were faced with the dilemma of how to tell a story which was partly based on raising compassion, but more based on telling what was happening in these situations.

This became increasingly difficult when the question of "who are the good guys and bad guys" surfaced; organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontières were set up to address suffering without assessing or questioning the victim. But the media and the audience increasing only paid attention to the "innocent victim".

Prof Seaton questioned the practice of labeling failed states as 'humanitarian disasters', a common practice of the media and increasing NGOs who utilize this easy to understand term to 'package' suffering of the "innocent victim" as part of a philanthropic appeal.

This moral question was echoed by Cohen when he asked, "Why are some stories made into stories and some are not?"

Prof Gilroy responded with an analysis of why the situation in Darfur has become a source of such a huge moral outrage in the United States compared to other places. Gilroy saw powerful geopolitical and metapolitical factors at play based on historic notions of ignorance and the shame of guilt. Gilroy commented that the world could be different if people did not dress up their neo-colonial or neo-imperial projects as humanitarian projects.

Building on his point, Prof. Cohen warned, "we can't have a Richter scale of atrocity," but can we reverse this trajectory of increased comodification of human suffering and commercialization of humanitarian communication?

You can have the opportunity to discussion this issue further by joining us on November 6th at 6:30pm for panel two on 'Humanitarian Campaigning and the Cosmopolitan Imagination'. RSVP by emailing polis@lse.ac.uk|.

Eli Lipmen, POLIS intern