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Plan Humanitarian Disasters Survey

A public opinion survey on behalf of Plan.

Date Published: 08 Feb 2011

Categories: International | Media | Public and communities | Social | Third Sector


The British public finds media reports of humanitarian disasters too sentimental and sensationalist, according to new research from international children’s development charity Plan UK.

Nearly sixty per cent of people (58%) thought broadcast, print, radio and online outlets are often too sentimental and sensationalist when reporting disasters and should simply state the facts. 

The study, carried out by research company ComRes on behalf of Plan, also found that just more than half of people (55%) think that charities receive about the right amount of coverage for their emergency response work.

However, 14 per cent believe they get too much and nearly one in three (31%) think they receive too little. 

More than half of the public (56%) have taken action after reading, watching or hearing media coverage of humanitarian disasters, like the earthquake in Haiti and floods in Pakistan.

Around a third of people donated money (36%), nearly one in three discussed issues with others (29%), and more than a quarter watched a documentary, or read an article (27%).

The study, conducted by research company ComRes on behalf of Plan, also reveals that women in the UK are more generous than men.

43 per cent of women have contributed cash, compared to less than a third (29%) of men. 

“This new research underlines the crucial role the media play in influencing the public’s response to a disaster,” says Leigh Daynes, director of communications at Plan.

“What the public don’t see behind the headlines is the often complex, inter-dependent relationship between aid agency PROs and journalists.  We all have to work harder to understand the complexity of disasters and how our marketing communications or reportage influence public understanding.”

The research also shows that more than half (57%) of those who gave money after seeing media coverage of events like the earthquake in Haiti or the floods in Pakistan did not hear anything about how their money was spent.  

Just one in five people (20%) who contributed to NGOs after disasters received some sort of communication regarding their donation.

Only 5 per cent of these were personalised.

Just 9 per cent received a thank you.  

“The research suggests that aid agencies are particularly bad at thanking the public for their support and explaining the difference this has made.  Thanking less than one in ten donors is a shameful, wasted opportunity to explain how and why aid works,” adds Mr Daynes.

“The way the world responds to a new disaster largely depends on the way the media cover it,” says former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, and Plan UK patron, Sir John Holmes.

“Aid agencies need to learn how to communicate more effectively and journalists need to understand better the dynamics of a disaster and what is possible and necessary in aid terms.” 

The research shows that awareness of catastrophes overseas is high.

In the last year, more than nine out of ten people recall seeing coverage of humanitarian disasters on the television (92%).

Two thirds (67%) remember reading reports in newspapers.

Just under half (48%) have heard coverage on the radio.   

Around a quarter of people (26%) found out more about humanitarian emergencies through charity advertising. 

The findings suggest that people particularly like reports that focus on children.

62 percent find such coverage especially compelling.

Similarly, 59 per cent say they prefer stories about an individual or family, especially when the story is revisited later.

Overall, reporting of humanitarian disasters is generally seen to be neutral. 

Half of people (50%) think that coverage of how aid is being spent in response to events like the earthquake in Haiti and floods in Pakistan was not overly critical, nor overly positive.

However, people over the age of 65 are most likely to think that reports are negative.

More than a third (34%) say this is the case, compared to just more than a quarter (27%) of the whole population. 

Plan UK is hosting a symposium of leading media and humanitarian communications practitioners on 8th of February at the Royal Commonwealth Society in London, to discuss the research and ways of working. 

The event will be chaired by Sir John Holmes. The panel will feature veteran Daily Mail foreign correspondent, Dame Ann Leslie, as well as BBC World News Editor Jon Williams, CEO of the Disasters Emergency Committee, Brendan Gormley, Editor of Reuters Alertnet, Tim Large and Dr Shani Orgad, Lecturer in Media and Communications at LSE.  

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