How important is television news to international development? | ActionAid UK

This week's Newsnight reported a study which argues that international news coverage of wars, humanitarian crises and the alike struggle to get an emotional response.

The BBC interview ActionAid Haiti's country director Jean Claude Fignole about ActionAid's emergency food distribution.
The BBC interview ActionAid Haiti's country director Jean Claude Fignole about ActionAid's emergency food distribution.

The study by Dr Martin Scott, Lecturer in Media and Development at the University of East Anglia, claims that documentary programmes are much more effective at engaging people emotionally.

But as someone who spent ten years as a producer and director — primarily at BBC Panorama before working in international development — I wondered whether this is true?

It is certainly the case that news reports can often feel impersonal and remote from the audience. But it also remains true that news reports remain the most powerful tool in transforming people to action.

Recent examples of this include the world’s response to the Philippines typhoon, the Haiti earthquake and the Asian tsunami – all events brought to our attention by news reports.

On a day-to-day basis, documentaries evoke a more emotional response because they have the time to tell complex stories and allow audiences to become invested in their subjects.

This probably also reflects a deliberate move by filmmakers over the years towards more emotional storytelling as they fight valiantly to keep audiences watching difficult subjects.

But when news hits, it still hits very big.

It is immediate, it is broadcast within minutes or hours of an event and it commands much higher audiences than documentaries. It can lead to an international emergency response being launched within hours of a disaster.

And I suspect that at some level this is still down to the ability of news reporting to provoke an emotional response in its audiences.