MC429      Half Unit
Humanitarian Communication: vulnerability, discourse and power

This information is for the 2015/16 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Lilie Chouliaraki S102


This course is available on the MSc in Global Media and Communications (LSE and Fudan), MSc in Global Media and Communications (LSE and USC), MSc in Media and Communications, MSc in Media and Communications (Research) and MSc in Media, Communication and Development. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

Today more than ever, images and narratives of vulnerable people in zones of disaster, violence and conflict routinely populate everyday lives in the West. Taking our starting point on these images and narratives produced by a number of actors (NGOs, journalists, citizens, militants or regular armies) and appearing in a large number of digital platforms (NGO websites, news networks, social media and celebrity advocacy), we explore the changing practices of humanitarian communication in the 21st century – broadly understood to encompass disaster communication and conflict reporting (but also increasingly human rights appeals). We do so by addressing questions such as: What are the histories of humanitarian communication? How is it changing today and why? What are the tensions and dilemmas that organizations face as they struggle to communicate the plight of distant others? What kind of politics of visibility and voice is played out in the mediation of distant suffering? Which ethical norms inform the digital narratives and spectacles of vulnerable others in those zones? And finally, which are the challenges of 21st century humanitarian communication and can we do it better?

To explore these issues, the course adopts an interdisciplinary and case-based approach that enables students both to debate the theoretical links between vulnerability, discourse and power and to reflect on concrete examples of the communication of humanitarian messages and conflict news today. The course consists of three parts: the politics of mediating distant suffering; humanitarian communication in disaster zones; conflict reporting in ‘humanitarian’ wars.


10 hours of lectures and 10 hours of seminars in the MT.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the MT.

All students are expected to complete advance reading, prepare reading-based seminar presentations, and submit one essay of 1,500 words.

Indicative reading

1. Boltanski L. (1999) Distant Suffering: Morality, Politics and the Media, CUP

2. Barnett M. and Weiss T. (2008) Humanitarianism in Question. Politics, Power, Ethics Cornell University Press 

3. Chouliaraki L. (2013) The Ironic Spectator. Solidarity in the Age of Post-humanitarianism Cambridge: Polity 

4. Cohen, S. (2001).  States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, London: Polity

5. Richey, LA and Ponte, S (2011). Brand Aid Shopping Well to Save the World, University of Minnesota Press

6. Hoskins A. and O’Loughlin B. (2010) War and Media Cambridge: Polity 

7. Butler J. (2009) Frames of War London: Verso


Essay (100%, 3000 words) in the MT.

Key facts

Department: Media & Communications

Total students 2014/15: Unavailable

Average class size 2014/15: Unavailable

Controlled access 2014/15: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication