It used to be that a nonprofit organization would have to pester editors in the mainstream media to earn a minute’s worth of coverage of the plight of victims of war, famine, and disease. Sure, the press are all over an earthquake, tsunami, mudslide or wildfire; TV thrives on B-roll of humanitarian disasters and tales of triumph amid tragedy. But that intense focus lasts only a few hours or days. Then, it’s back to the “real” news: the stock market, partisan politics, celebrity fluff.
It is sad (and infuriating) that our culture seems to care more about the extramarital affairs of public officials than the public suffering of people half a world away. Thankfully, the emergence of digital media has made the tools of storytelling and message dissemination more readily available, affordable, and accessible. And now, people working on the frontlines of poverty are also becoming the documentarians of human need.
Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) is a global aid organization with an impressive track record of serving people whose endangered lives too often fall below the news radar. (Disclosure: I’ve donated to MSF following various natural disasters). MSF is also leading the way in creating powerful social media to enlighten (and engage) the Western world. Their latest multimedia campaign launches today. It’s called “Starved for Attention” and it’s about the global crisis of childhood malnutrition.
Overcoming Visual Immunity
“Over the past few decades, the image of emaciated, fly-ridden children on the brink of death from famines and other catastrophe has come to define the visual representation of childhood malnutrition,” writes MSF Communications Director Jason Cone on the MSF blog. “And in this media saturated world, flush with information documenting the daily toll of human suffering, it is understandable that a visual immunity has developed as a line of defense against this clichéd imagery provoking any kind of an emotional response to tackle the crisis of childhood malnutrition head on. It was in this context that Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) challenged seven of the most accomplished and award-winning photographers to capture a new visual identity for malnutrition.”
According to MSF, nearly 200 million children worldwide suffer from malnutrition, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These children are literally starving for attention and compassionate intervention. They not only need more food, but better food, with greater nutritional value than bread and water.
MSF’s campaign includes a series of short videos rolled out over seven weeks documenting MSF’s battle against malnutrition in Africa, Asia, Mexico and the United States; a touring photo exhibit, and public screenings and discussions of the full-length documentary “Starved for Attention.” The ultimate goal is to raise awareness and inspire viewers to help “rewrite the story” by joining the campaign by uploading a photo of yourself and signing a petition to increase and improve humanitarian aid from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan and Europe.
Tell me: How do you think “Starved for Attention” would be different if it were produced by and for a public media institution instead of a nonprofit/advocacy group. Clearly, it probably wouldn’t include an invitation or link to sign a petition. But it might offer some other avenue for viewer/listener engagement. What, if anything, separates this project from journalism? How can you tell the difference between excellent media on a mission and independent public media?
Photo © Jessica Dimmock/VII Network Burkina Faso, 2009