Grace, 4-year-old Nigerian child hurt by radicals

A machete-wielding radical attacked Grace in her Northern Nigerian village in March 2010.

How do you tell the story of the world’s dirtiest secrets without rolling around in the muck? That’s the premise examined by “The Rise and Fall of Poverty Porn,”, an article in Fast Company’s cause marketing arm Co.Exist.

Global humanitarian journalists face a unique challenge most other reporters do not. Trying to tell stories about the men, women and children affected by society’s greatest ills without indulging in overwrought prose, grotesque imagery or as I like to call it – the pornography of the poor.

Poverty porn, as it’s known, uses images and stories that do not reflect the dignity of the individual but show instead a person’s unvarnished misery in an attempt to “move” people to give to a humanitarian cause. Think African children with distended stomachs and flies in their face or extremely gaunt Somalian babies with large eyes and spindly limbs. This tactic to immobilize Western groups to alleviate the suffering of innocent victims of poverty, famine, war and other ills in developing nations became the standard of humanitarian aid and awareness groups. The distributors of this content instinctively flinched at using it but felt it was the only way to shock people into action.

New York time's Somalia Front Page

courtesy Huffington Post

A recent New York Times photograph of a dying, gaunt, rib-showing Somalian child published on its front page to explain the urgency of the recent Somalian famine thrust the debate over poverty porn into blogosphere. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said publishing the graphic photo was “a no-brainer.”

But should it have been? Should the New York Times have put more thought into how to urge action without resulting to the standard poverty exploitation picture? Throughout the media, photographer Tyler Hicks was praised, even lauded for that photograph. It is a stark, disturbing look at what famine can do to a child. But is it effective? Does it help solve the problem the child is suffering from?

Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal may have a different opinion than Tyler and Bill. In a piece printed in the Los Angeles Times the co-directors of the London-based African Rights organization say Western media often use outliers, not representative imagery and stories to explain the world’s ills.

The camera can’t lie, we are told. But anyone who has watched a Western film crew in an African famine will know just how much effort it takes to compose the “right” image. Photogenic starving children are hard to find, even in Somalia.

They went on to suggest that in their passion to cover the “crisis story,” Western media does Somalia or its citizens few favors.

Somali doctors and nurses have expressed shock at the conduct of film crews in hospitals. They rush through crowded corridors, leaping over stretchers, dashing to film the agony before it passes. They hold bedside vigils to record the moment of death. When the Italian actress Sophia Loren visited Somalia, the paparazzi trampled on children as they scrambled to film her feeding a little girl-three times. This is disaster pornography.

In fact, research suggests this type of crisis reporting – following the affliction de jour from country to country – interferes with strategic aid planning that could actually help solve some of these emerging crisis. Tyler Hicks photo of a dying Somalian child could have been taken in 1993 when another Somalian famine crisis was covered by the media. Photographs aside, the problem still exists.

So what does all this tell us?

Imagery alone won’t do it. Context is more important. At World Media Now we want to work with journalists covering humanitarian issues on how to educate, engage and empower our audience to change the world by putting the world’s problems in context. How do you cover the humanitarian crisis while protecting the dignity of the humans you cover in your stories?

Cynical aid workers have espoused that when Western media comes to a crisis, they often bypass better looking, more healthy victims of disaster in favor of finding the “worst-case scenario.” They deliberately find the outlier of agony for the media to cover. Is this ethical?

All this needs to be considered when you practice this kind of journalism. Publishing punishing poverty images should never be a “no-brainer,” on the contrary quite the opposite. It should consume copious amounts of thought before your photographer gets to the field. You should have an editorial policy that address such issues so that you’re not making gut reactions to such media content.

Our answer is to publish a steady diet, robust and diverse diet of content, gathered by the people who live in the areas where conflict, war, famine and disease persists to offer our readers a fuller vision of the ills people face around the globe and the background and context needed to effect real change.

At least that’s our goal anyway! 🙂