Aid agencies criticised for overuse of negative imagery to gain public support

Charities have been criticised for using negative imagery in development publicity, with the chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee warning of a 'race to the bottom'.

Graphic: charities use images of malnourished children
Graphic: charities use images of malnourished children

A public panel debate held at the London School of Economics last week saw experts in the fields of PR, charity and disaster relief discuss the future of communicating distant suffering to the public.

The use of ‘simplistic’ negative imagery was repeatedly criticised by members of the panel, including Plan UK director of advocacy, campaigns and comms Leigh Daynes, and the DEC’s Brendan Gormley. The DEC chief executive warned: ‘There’s a danger that aid agencies could be in a race to the bottom.’

Despite calls from audience members that charities should continue to expose the harsh realities of life in places such as the Horn of Africa, panel members hit back, calling for increased consideration of the dignity of those being represented.

‘For us, there should always be a red line about respect and dignity,’ said Daynes. ‘It does not mean we can’t be truthful.’
Shine Communications founder Rachel Bell added: ‘People know if they are being shocked into action. The way you approach it is in a sensitive way that does not skirt around the issues.’

The discussion was informed by the agenda of a three-year research project being led by LSE and Birkbeck College into the public’s perceptions of and response to comms by aid and development agencies.

Daynes summarised the findings: ‘What members of the public are saying to us is they’re just so sedated with suffering. They are saying that we are charming them or disarming them into acts of compassion. They are also saying we’re abusing their emotions.’

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