OPINION: News overloads aid agencies

Lisa Harker, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

At a time like this it is hard to imagine how we managed without rolling news coverage and up-to-the-minute internet reportage.

Once we went for hours between news bulletins and the occasional news flash without knowing how world events were unfolding. Now it is hard to resist the intake of the constant drip-feed of information on the twists and turns of war.

But 24-hour news reporting is far from liberating. Those with friends or relatives in the Gulf now experience the guilt of turning off the TV or computer when there appears to be a never-ending opportunity to find out more about their loved one's whereabouts.

The fog of war and the obvious need for secrecy casts doubt on the accuracy of the information we receive, but it became apparent in the first few days of war that we are now more likely to hear about the fate of a relative or friend via a news report than by more traditional means.

So while non-stop news coverage helps us to understand the situation in Iraq more clearly, more knowledge often brings little comfort. Indeed, the 24-hour information flow is increasingly being viewed as a source of stress itself.

The rapid pace of news reporting also raises expectations about the speed and effectiveness of the response of aid agencies seeking to provide humanitarian relief in the aftermath of war. The improved speed of communication around the world has undoubtedly helped to increase the efficacy of humanitarian work. But rolling news coverage also invites the public to pass judgement more quickly on the effectiveness of the humanitarian response.

I have no grounds to doubt that aid agencies are already rising to the challenge posed by this new information age. Now we have the means of witnessing the twists and turns of events around the globe, there is no going back to old-style communication. But it is hard not to feel wistful about the days when we were not required to work to a pace that wasn't heavily influenced by the speed of news reportage. Ignorance may not have been bliss, but it certainly made life easier.

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