What Makes a Good Story?


A new report (*.pdf – requires Acrobat Reader) produced by the Fritz Institute and Reuters Foundation’s AlertNet paints an interesting picture of the relationship between media coverage and humanitarian crisis. Most of the findings are hardly surprising (more press coverage = more private donations? incredible!!!), but the report is significant in that it’s (apparently) “the largest, most comprehensive survey ever undertaken of this symbiotic relationship [between journalists and humanitarian aid organizations].”

So maybe it’ll make people think.

The report’s called “Toward New Understandings: Journalists and Humanitarian Relief Coverage.”

It has lots of interesting points (which I’m hardly going to cover—read the story on AlertNet for an overview of the study’s findings if you’re interested in a quick summary), but one of the most interesting sections details What Makes A Humanitarian Crisis News. Some of the things mentioned:

  • High death toll was mentioned by almost half of all the journalists (49%) as the “best reason to run a relief story”; among North American respondents, that number jumped to 61%.
  • Children suffering was mentioned as a significant reason by 40% of the non-North American respondents, but only by 18% of the North American journalists.
  • North Americans were more likely than other groups (34% vs. 23% non-North Americans) to mention a story if it featured people of the same background as those suffering.

There are a thousand things I could say about this, but the thing that comes to mind first is: what is it about a high death toll that makes it captivating to us? It seems so obvious so as to be self-evident, which is part of the problem.

The problem of 1,000 people being killed in the space of a day being so much more compelling to us than 1,000 people being killed, gradually and subtly, over the course of the year.

The obvious response is, but these things are different.

But are they?

The report brings up interesting points far above and beyond this; go read it if you have a chance.

(via AlertNet: “Charities face dilemma: food parcels or press releases” by Mark Jones [March 3, 2004]; and Fritz Institute/Reuters Foundation: “Toward New Understandings: Journalists and Humanitarian Relief Coverage.”)