Is COVID-19 Changing the Media’s Definition of a Humanitarian Crisis? 

Design mashup featuring graphic illustration of a virus particle and image of a child outdoors wearing a face mask

Researchers Kate Wright (SPS) and Anouk Lang (LLC) are working with Dani Madrid-Morales (University of Houston) on an interdisciplinary project to investigate the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has altered popular conceptualisations of the notion of humanitarian crises circulating within mainstream and social media.

Existing scholarship on humanitarian crises suggests that journalists often reproduce a dominant ‘emergency’ model which conceptualises crises as relatively sudden, unpredictable and geographically focused, framing these in largely apolitical and decontextualised ways by stressing the need for urgent relief. By drawing on large corpora of up-to-the-minute news and social media data, this study will contribute to existing practitioner arguments seeking to rethink the representation of humanitarian crises, and will provide a basis for larger-scale investigations. 

Supported by funding from the Centre for Data, Culture & Society, with research assistance from Suzanne Black (LLC) and Andrew Jones (University of Leicester), the project will compare humanitarian news coverage before and after the WHO announcement that COVID19 had become a pandemic in March 2020. The study builds on Wright’s existing multimethod study on the political economies and production practices of humanitarian journalism, highlighting changes in the actual news output. 

Using a dataset of Anglophone news coverage drawn from over 400 news media organisations such as the BBC, The Guardian, CGTN, and Al Jazeera English in more than 70 countries, the researchers will use computational text analysis methods including corpus analysis and topic modelling to identify the terms commonly associated with the term ‘humanitarian’ before and after the pandemic, contextualizing their findings with a consideration of cultural differences and by the use of methods from discourse analysis. The news data will also be compared to a sample of tweets which include the term ‘humanitarian’, extracted from Twitter from March 2020 onwards. 

This study will serve as the basis for further rounds of analysis using a larger news corpus, dating back to 2010. This will allow the researchers to search for other shifts in the conceptualisation of what constitutes a ‘humanitarian’ crisis in relation to other events and issues such as climate change, the European refugee crisis, and the policy discussions held during the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.