Famine, War and Corruption: The British Media’s Portrayal of the Global South

IDS film examines how British media portray Global South

A new short film from IDS reveals how the British media portray poverty in developing countries.

Launched today, Famine, War and Corruption: The British Media’s Portrayal of the Global South features interviews with journalists and filmmakers, including Jon Snow (journalist and news presenter, ITN), Caroline Nursey (director, BBC Media Action) and Richard Kavuma (journalist, The Observer, Uganda).

Contributors discuss how the media tend to focus on issues of war and disaster, rather than giving a true picture of life in developing countries. They discuss some of the challenges faced by the British media as they explain global poverty to the public, including the pressure of ratings, tight timescales and newsroom staffing cuts.

The video was produced as part of IDS’ ongoing work to understand how policy and opinion on international development is shaped.

IDS Research Fellow Spencer Henson leads IDS’ work on public attitudes towards development. He said: ‘This video provides a fascinating and somewhat sobering perspective on how the media portrays poverty in developing countries. It throws light on the lack of appreciation and understanding of international development issues amongst the UK public.’ Understanding public attitudes towards development

For almost two years now, IDS’ UK Public Opinion Monitor (UKPOM) has been exploring these issues. By researching the beliefs, attitudes and values of a cross-section of the UK public, it aims to understand the public’s support for international development and how this plays out through their own actions and behaviours.

Results from the UKPOM highlight the degree to which the UK public is uninformed about international development. Whilst they recognise their ignorance on such issues, however, this does not stop many from having quite hardened views on the nature of global poverty. This translates, in turn, into relatively weak support for UK aid, especially in times of austerity. Whilst the moral imperative to ‘help’ the global poor is appreciated widely, many members of the public are of the view that aid does not work and that priority should be given to the poor at home.

The media’s role in influencing perceptions of development

Not surprisingly, as this video shows, members of the UK public widely associate developing countries with disasters. Indeed, aside from perceptions of corrupt leaders, the images that spring to mind when they think of poor parts of the world are of war, earthquakes and famine. Evidently, when such events occur and poor people suffer as a consequence, people are prepared to dig into their pockets.

The media plays a key role here; it is where most people hear about the South and the plight of the people that live there. Such media coverage is critical for the fundraising efforts of international development NGOs in times of emergency. However, it perpetuates views that are rather destructive in the longer term; concepts of ‘charity’, of nothing getting better (and hence aid not working) and of helplessness. The media also rarely do anything to bring forward the wider structural issues that underlie global poverty.

This begs the question, what will it take for the British media to present more positive images of global poverty and the South, and what will it take for the UK public to watch them?