The Space Between Us: Trust, Communication, and Collaboration between Media and Humanitarian Organizations in Public Health Emergencies

This report shares the findings of research carried out by Internews in 2022 that explored the relationship between humanitarian/health actors and media practitioners amid the COVID-19 pandemic and infodemic.

It seeks to identify new and ongoing gaps and barriers faced by the two groups in their engagement with one another and offers recommendations for a better working relationship. Although the report uses the COVID-19 pandemic as the case study, the challenges and solutions identified are seen as relevant in other public health emergencies and humanitarian crises.

This report is based on interviews with 51 humanitarian practitioners and 51 journalists across nine countries (Brazil, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, Lebanon, Mali, South Sudan, Sudan, and Zimbabwe). The research showed a lack of fundamental understanding, trust, and collaboration between humanitarian/health actors and media practitioners, often resulting in untimely, inaccurate or irrelevant information that is out of touch with communities’ needs or local priorities. This was especially felt by vulnerable and marginalized communities living in humanitarian contexts as public health guidance often ignored or failed to consider the challenging contexts faced by these populations.

Local media faced challenges in accessing the information they needed to report back to their communities. In addition, health/humanitarian actors were not always successful at transmitting the complex science behind the pandemic in a way that was relevant for journalists at the hyper-local level. Efforts were put in place to get accurate messages out, but the gap between health experts and media was not always successfully bridged at the local level. Issues of connectivity, language, contextual adaptation of information and curtailed access to locally relevant experts affected the relevance of the information provided, leaving communities confused, feeling ignored, and ultimately ill-informed. This resulted in many people turning to other, less reliable, sensationalist or inaccurate information sources, which played the role of sensemaking mechanisms in a time of fear and anxiety.

In an effort to unpack these challenges and search for solutions, this research study looks at what obstacles health/humanitarian organizations encountered in engaging with media/journalists and what the media had to say about the obstacles they face in their relationship with health and humanitarian organizations.

Moving forward, the report recommends a process of building and strengthening trust and collaboration through regular and deeper interactions between media and humanitarian actors that will allow them to share each other’s motivations, approaches, and respective ethical frameworks. This would enable them to recognize each other as allies in a public health crisis, with common concerns and interests, while also managing expectations and establishing important differences in their roles. Such opportunities may also offer a window to unpack the practices, beliefs and dynamics that prevent the two groups from relating to each other as equals, from practices such as envelope journalism to the legacy of colonialism in global health.