News, Truth and Power – The Ethiopian Famine

The production of news involves the exercise of power.

Greg Philo ‘ From Buerk to Band Aid: The media and the 1984 Ethiopian Famine p104-125 in Eldridge, John Getting the Message: News Truth and Power, Routledge 1993

In our lecture, we looked at the Ethiopian Famine. The news coverage of the famine was interesting, since the famine was predicted well in advance but was not publicised in the news at first.

In 1984, the famine was reported in ‘quality’ press but not on international TV news. In October, following the catastrophe, reporter Mohammed Amin filmed the story. This was carried by the BBC.

We have been asking for help since early 1983. It seems you have to have thousands of corpses before people will sit up and take notice.‘ – Unicef 12th November 1984.

Media is crucial in motivating international response.

July 1984 – Seeds of Despair documentary released.famine-anniversary-4_0.jpg

partly in competition, partly in co-operation, BBC Television News showed the first Michael Buerk report from Ethiopia‘ (Listener 28 Feb 1985)

Buerk was dispatched hot-footed to get in-house footage. The Ethopian Government refused to give him a visa, so he hitched a ride with a relief mission. This meant he missed Korem, the epicentre of the famine, and had to film in the south, which was still green compared with the brown desiccation of the north. Above all, it means that this was a typical ‘fireman’s’ piece, with the correspondent flying in and out again in a day, staying just long enough to face a snap judgement to camera.‘ (Listener 28 Feb 1985)

There was a second Buerk report. This was a follow up to the first BBC story. Amin and Buerk both worked on it. It was first broadcast 23rd October 1984 by the BBC. After this second report, interest was created in the Western media, including NBC (America). Front page reports were published by the New York Times and others.

Literally overnight, it seemed that everyone wanted to cover Ethiopia. Reporters deluged Addis Ababa by the hundreds: many aid workers who had been trying for more than a year to pull the news media’s attention to the famine were now finding themselves so busy briefing journalists that they barely had time to do their normal relief work.‘ – Mary Magistad 1986

News Limits

Political conflicts – Ethiopian revolution: The Marxist authorities thought that western journalists would use any opportunity to attack the regime.

There was also concern that journalists would report on military operations.

When authorities saw the impact of Seeds of Despair their attitude changed.

News Organisations

It is not news to anyone that these organisations compete with each other. The BBC took up the story because they were concerned ITV would take it up first. Visnews and BBC later both claimed the story.

Media Priorities

Aid workers were in place for a long time and saw the changes within Ethiopia. They saw people becoming thinner and dying. Whereas Media organisations only have a ‘firemans’ approach. They only see a snapshot.


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