Professional media attention to crises can be quite fickle, depending on where in the world the crisis occurs, the type of crisis, and which other (unrelated) events have occurred in the same news cycle. Thomas Eisensee and David Strömberg analyzed the effect of mass media on US government response to nearly 5,000 natural disasters over 34 years in News Droughts, News Floods, and U.S. Disaster Relief. They found that for every person killed in a volcano eruption, 40,000 must die from drought to receive the same probability of professional media coverage in the United States. Similarly, 40 times more people must die in an African disaster to achieve the same expected media coverage as the same magnitude of disaster in Eastern Europe. There’s no guarantee that a crisis in one’s community will become well-known news, no matter the severity of the calamity. Research has found that the scale and impact of a natural disaster is poorly correlated with the amount of media attention to follow.
Our experience of crises, as mediated by the news media, produces a distorted perception where only a limited number of crises reach our attention, and for a variety of reasons that may not be connected to our own allegiances, passions, and capacity for empathy. Zack Sultan visualizes the contrast between crises as mediated by the nightly news and reality:
UN-OCHA’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) exists “to even out funding disparities and highlight ‘forgotten’ or ‘neglected’ emergencies such as the long-standing Sahrawi refugee operation in Algeria.” As one might guess after seeing the results of Eisensee and Strömberg’s study, there are many under-reported crises: “Since 2006, US $900 million have been allocated from CERF to neglected crises in more than 40 countries.”
Economist Herbert Simon posited that as larger volumes of information vie for our attention, attention itself becomes a scarce and thereby valuable commodity. Elements of this theory have been quantified in the aforementioned study: in the nearly 5,000 international disasters occurring between 1968 and 2002, the authors found that the likelihood and degree of official U.S. relief was closely tied to the crisis’s position in the news. When major events like the Olympics crowded the news hole, international disasters subsequently received less media attention, and as a result, less aid from the U.S. government. International disasters were found to be 5% less likely to receive any relief during the Olympics compared to baseline news cycles. This study clearly quantifies the stakes that mass media awareness of an international crisis carries, particularly for the crises less likely to make international headlines.