The future of humanitarian reporting

If you read my last post, you’d know that I’m not settled on a dream job.

And when people ask me what I want to do with a journalism major, I usually just know what I don’t want to do with it.

Sports broadcaster? No thanks. Board meeting reporter? Mm, rather not. Marketing executive? Eh, better not.

DSC_0991In fact, I didn’t even know there was a title for the kind of work I am interested in until UW Alumna Erin Luhmann spoke about her Win-a-Trip contest with humanitarian reporter Nicholas Kristof.

As outlets struggle to produce simple domestic news, humanitarian reporting seems to be floating away as a collateral loss of the new media age. Bureaus are sending out fewer reporters and the responsibility has fallen largely to freelance writers who can hardly afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment, let alone backpack across conflict zones.

Not to mention, readers are not demanding this kind of information.

Reporter Brooke Gladstone attempts to flesh out this lack of demand in her post “Combating ‘Compassion Fatigue’ and Other Reporting Challenges.” First, she says, audiences are bored with humanitarian crises because the larger they become, the less human they seem. Second, viewers have seen so many famines, earthquakes, and bombings that they have become desensitized. And finally, there is the empathy gap: where the subjects of humanitarian reporting are so different from their audience that they become unrecognizable.

Wonder why someone would be interested in a career like this? Acclaimed humanitarian reporter Janine di Giovanni does sometimes, too.

In her 11 minute TED talk, “What I saw in the war,” she explains that people ask her all the time why she does this–why she reports in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria–she DSC_0970responds:

“I started reporting [in Syria] because it needs to be done. I believe a story there needs to be told. What I see is incredibly heroic people–some of them fighting for democracy, for things we take for granted every single day … All I am is a witness. My role is bring a voice to the people who are voiceless.”

Now, I know my mom really wants me to be a doctor, but even she would commend commitment like that.

So, rather than speculate about how journalism or humanitarian reporting maybe dying (or just changing), I’ll remember that though the future is uncertain, the basic principle behind this work remains.

“There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes through that red light, and normal traffic had better get out of its way. Or when a man is bleeding to death, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed. There is a fire raging… for the poor of this society. Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.


1 Comment

  1. jocelyndoll says:

    I’m looking into a similar career path, and it is terrifying and exciting all at once. I’d say good luck, but I don’t believe in luck. So, I wish you well and I will be following and learning along with you. Hopefully we can even share some tips!

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