I’m Sick of People Suffering in Silence

A man helps a child out of a boat after a cyclone floods their land

By Joy Portella


Cyclone Idai is devastating. As of this writing, the death toll across Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe has reached 750 and the final count will surely be higher. As always with disasters, the work of recovery and rebuilding will stretch on for months and years – long after journalists have stopped transmitting images of Idai’s toll around the world.


In a perverse way, the victims of Cyclone Idai are lucky; at least people are paying attention. That means that aid and international support will flow into the disaster zone. But for every Cyclone Idai that grabs global headlines – even if it’s just for a week – there are a dozen slow-burn disasters in different corners of the world that never get any attention.


As a communicator who has worked in the global development and health space for 20+ years, and seen my fair share of disasters, I have come to accept an uncomfortable reality: mainstream media pay attention to some global crises and they utterly ignore others. It’s not because journalists are heartless people. Lack of coverage stems from a complex combination of factors like lack of press freedom, conflict and insecurity in crisis zones, and “disaster fatigue” from readers and viewers. Perhaps the most important factor is that a slow-build, complex disaster like a drought is less conducive to a hard-hitting news package than a sudden, force-of-nature disaster like an earthquake.


Regardless of the cause, the result is the same: Lots of people are suffering and nobody’s paying attention. A few years ago, the international aid organization CARE started a great effort to document these under-reported disasters in an annual report called Suffering in Silence.


Working with the media monitoring company Meltwater Group (which despite its notoriously aggressive marketing efforts seems to be doing some good work), CARE analyzed more than 1.1 million online news articles from January 1 to November 28, 2018, looking at news about disasters that impacted at least one million people. This analysis generated a list of 34 crises, and Suffering in Silence details the 10 that received the least media attention. Unless you’re deep in the humanitarian aid sector, you probably haven’t heard of these disasters. That’s the point.


A typhoon forced more than one million people from their homes in the Philippines. I bet you had no idea. And it wasn’t Typhoon Haiyan; that was 5+ years ago.


Cycles of drought and natural disasters have left 2.8 million Haitians in need of help. I’m guessing you haven’t thought of Haiti since the 2010 earthquake.


I’m sure you heard about the terrible Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 people last week, but I’m almost certain you don’t know that ethnic conflict displaced one million Ethiopians last year, and a drought and food crisis have rendered eight million people hungry.


Climate change, the ultimate slow-burn disaster, is at the root of many of these crises that leave people homeless and hungry. The Guardian wrote this excellent piece on why climate-related disasters receive so little coverage. It includes a pithy quote about how the world is much more comfortable with polar bears – rather than people – being the face of climate change’s terrible impact.


CARE does a good job of following up on all of this depressing non-news with concrete steps that policy-makers, journalists, aid organizations, and consumers of news can take to make things better. As a communicator, I’m jazzed about the fact that mainstream media is no longer the only game in town. For better or for worse, news has been democratized. Survivors of conflict zones can shoot videos and post them on YouTube, NGO communicators can side hustle as journalists, and people struggling with hunger and poverty can tell their own stories.


Just because someone isn’t profiled in The New York Times doesn’t mean they need to suffer in silence.

About The Author

Minerva Strategies

Minerva Strategies

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