Humanitarian crisis journalism with Philip Kleinfeld

person holding newspaper on fire
Olivia Moore

23rd June 2021

On 10 June 2021, STAND News and SIN were privileged to hear from Philip Kleinfeld, correspondent and editor with The New Humanitarian – a publication described by Kleinfeld himself as an “independent, non-profit newsroom, singularly dedicated to humanitarian crises and conflicts”. With an extensive career as a multimedia reporter investigating conflict, human rights abuses and humanitarian crises across sub-Saharan Africa, Kleinfeld could have jumped straight into his list of accolades including coverage of rebellions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, militancy in Mali and Burkina Faso, and wars in the Central African Republic and Congo-Brazzaville. However, his first words to us, urging us not to shy away from complexity for a story and not to simplify problematic narratives for the sake of ease, indicated the theme of the evening, which was very much focused away from Kleinfeld’s own achievements and very much towards turning the journalism industry into a more rounded, inclusive, and better environment.  

 

Kleinfeld acknowledged that the industry of normalisation is not really in the “empathy-generation” business. That is why the work of The New Humanitarian is so crucial – it creates stories with gripping narratives that encourage people to care and engage, but also produces analytical, constructive normalisation that provides a service, both the general public and people responding to these emergencies. However, the exceptional nature of this publication only serves to highlight the need for this sector to grow.  

 

“Kleinfeld himself reiterated the inefficiency of the traditional humanitarian sector: “it’s not ‘how can we help’, but ‘how can we apply for this grant?’” The entire sector is dominated by a small group of Western donor governments, namely the EU and the US, that control the purse strings – but also the narrative.”

Throughout the Ebola epidemic, for example, Western media focused on aid workers and the attacks on them by local communities who did not believe that Ebola was real, rather than on the details of the crisis itself.  

 

Kleinfeld explained to us that crises are becoming more complex, more multisided, more protracted, and longer, and the amount of money being requested by humanitarian groups is rising with people in more need than before. But at the same time, coverage by national media organisations is limited, simplistic, fleeting, and ultimately incompetent. The business model of journalism – which is, primarily, to make money – does not lend itself to properly cover humanitarian crises: prejudiced editors follow media revenues, dominated by domestic issues, and do not report on humanitarian crises with the consistency and complexity that such events frankly deserve. 

 

To finish off the evening, Kleinfeld provided a series of tips for aspiring journalists to try to enhance the positive trajectory promoted by The New Humanitarian in this ever-more prevalent sector of journalism. 

  1. Preparation is key: you should never set out to an area without knowing as much as is feasibly possible about the conflict. Try and stay put to build up local knowledge. 
  2. Keep it accurate: the stakes are high in a humanitarian crisis in many ways, and you owe it to the people you interview to fact check and verify your information. 
  3. Know why it matters: frame your story around the people experiencing the crisis. 
  4. Remember the boundaries: Understand the risks your local colleagues are taking by working with you. 
  5. Safeguard your sources: the people you are interviewing may be experiencing the worst day, week, or month of their lives, so do not lose sight of this in the frequency of the trauma. Do no harm – as Kleinfeld said, “You have to balance out your desire to get the story and get the facts right, and make sure this is neatly triangulated with the desires and needs of the person you are interviewing.” 
  6. Be a good person: ego, pride and the bravado behind risk-taking or being an adrenaline-junkie are the wrong reasons for engaging in this kind of work. Stay humble, do right by the profession and by the people that you interview, and don’t stop talking to friends and family. 

 

Thank you to Philip Kleinfeld for taking the time to speak to us and to inspire us to be better journalists. 

 

 

Featured photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

This article was supported by: STAND Programme Assistant Rachel

 

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