The Polis report entitled Who Cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering was produced in conjunction with development charity Plan.
It investigates the gap between 'what people know about suffering and how they act and react' and calls on all charities to comply with Article 10 of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief.
The code states: 'In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects.'
The report states that the guidelines provide 'a necessary baseline' on ethically appropriate portrayal of victims. 'The sector should aspire to and practise greater collective responsibility ... what one NGO does and how it communicates have far reaching effects on the whole sector,' reads the report.
Plan director of advocacy, campaigns and comms Leigh Daynes writes: 'The public are telling us they are saturated with suffering, we are charming or disarming them into acts of compassion, and we are abusing their emotions.'
Despite these comments, the report states that there has been a shift from 'flies-in-the-eyes' portrayals to more positive imagery. But it notes that NGOs' approaches differ, pointing to the varied portrayals of suffering in the East Africa crisis.
Elsewhere, the report suggests that the major challenge for NGOs is to attract new types of donors from the 'non-development audience', such as younger people.
The report follows a public panel debate held at the London School of Economics last November in which experts in PR, charity and disaster relief discussed communicating distant suffering to the public.