Journalists cause famine

Published on
March 16, 2018

The media can play a large role in decision making whether critical circumstances are called crisis or famine. A journalist reporting about malnourished children in an African hospital can lead to a story that the whole country is coping with hunger. How and when a situation is claimed an emergency, is the central theme of the symposium Knowing Food Crises that takes place on 20 March on the occasion of the centenary of WUR.

According to Peter Heintze, reporting a famine carries risks. Heintze is coordinator of KUNO, a humanitarian knowledge exchange platform. ' Whether or not there is an emergency is determined by bodies like the UN using data analysis. There are five degrees, of which famine is the fifth', he says. 'An estimate is made of the category that applies on the basis of the information available. The sources include for example surveys of the number of malnourished children in a hospital and stories in the media. If you extrapolate this to a larger region, you could overestimate the seriousness of the situation.'


A good example is the famine in Niger in 2005. Media from all over the world reported that 3.5 million people were starving. Three years later, a Norwegian documentary debunked this disaster. In the broadcast, Nigeriens, among them former prime minister president Hama Amadou, said there had been no famine at all.

The cow had been knocked down by a vehicle three weeks earlier
Peter Heintze

The Norwegian TV documentary revealed the underlying dynamic, Heintze says. In 2005 a BBC journalist reported about Niger. She observed a desiccated dead cow, people harvesting withered vegetation along the roadside and sick children in a hospital. 'Then the United Nations becomes alarmed, and the emergency aid organisations get up to full speed, as the Norwegian documentary reveals', Heintze says. 'But in reality the famine that was spoken about at the time did not exist. The cow had been knocked down by a vehicle three weeks earlier, and the nomadic population resorts to eating plants along the verges in dry periods. The children certainly were ill, but as a result of malaria, not famine.'

Whenever a proclaimed emergency turns out to be incorrect, this has an impact on trust in the aid organisations. According to Bram Jansen, a lecturer in the Sociology of Development and Change at WUR, unnecessary aid in the country has its negative consequences in the country as well. In Niger, farmers suddenly faced competition from the organisations that were distributing food. They were no longer able to market their local produce at normal prices.

Local news

Jansen queries whether involving local journalists in news reporting would have prevented the situation in Niger from escalating. 'They actually know what’s going on in their region,' Jansen says. 'Why don’t we have confidence in them? How can you cut through to the truth during a crisis? The concerns of organisations and political interests play a major role, especially in conflict zones. They might benefit from the support. We have to find a way of dealing with this.'

Against this background, Jansen and Heintze are organising the symposium Knowing Food Crises coming Tuesday. They will expose how misconceptions arise regarding emergencies and they look for solutions. How the proclamation of famine comes about is the starting point of the symposium.

Read more about the symposium