How does the media persuade us to give to charities?


In “Please Give Generously” – an excellent documentary broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this weekend – Fergal Keane examined the relationship between charities and the media, in which charities want to raise their profile as well as money, the media needs stories, and both traffic in drama.

Britain is home to 166,000 charities that last year received £10 billion in donations. Those are statistics that challenge the belief that “compassion fatigue” is an incurable part of the modern condition (a claim I plan to examine in greater detail in the near future). To be sure, giving declined 11% last year, largely because of the recession. But the speed and scale of the public response to disasters like the Haiti earthquake (for which the Disasters Emergency Committee’s consolidated UK appeal has raised £80 million shows that compassion for what are understood to be immediate, natural disasters is as great as ever.

Keane’s documentary did not dwell on the particular problems of photographic appeals, but it was at its most interesting when it turns to Africa (around 25:15), a continent he describes as “fixed in the mind by charity appeals” that trade in the symbols of disaster and distress. Here the need to simplify and shock diminishes context, leading to compassion without understanding.

In his conclusion, Keane claims there is a new public mood with respect to charitable appeals. Comprising a heightened scepticism and weariness, he declares the template of misery out of date, and sees a more sophisticated approach moving us away from “the age of dependency.”

While a more sophisticated approach is surely needed, and something other than a template of misery long overdue, I am in turn sceptical about claims the public suffers from weariness. In many ways – as the success of recent appeals suggests – “the public” seems as happy as ever with charity as a response to the problems of development and disaster.

Rather than suffering compassion fatigue, there might even be an enjoyment of the “excess of compassion.” This is something, Keane argues, that deflects attention away from the important questions of who is responsible and how they are culpable.

This documentary is worth listening to, so click on the player below to hear a full recording. (If nothing else, enjoy this 56-minute programme for the patrician tone in the archival recordings of British charity appeals broadcast in the 1920s and 1930s!).


Here are the programme notes from the BBC:

“Fergal Keane examines the history of charity appeals and the relationship between charity organisations and the media.

Be it a malnourished child in Africa, a neglected dog or a day centre desperately in need of new equipment, it seems that there is no end to the number of people, animals or organisations that could benefit from a charitable donation. And if charities can harness the power of the media with a hard-hitting advert, a celebrity endorsement or an emergency appeal, then it is likely that their cause will reap far greater financial rewards.

Fergal charts the history of the relationship between charity and the media, and considers the way the message is conveyed, the impact of celebrity endorsement, the quality of charity programmes and the responsibility and risks to the media in encouraging us to make a donation.

The history of charity and the media goes back to the earliest days of broadcasting. The BBC’s first charity appeal was in 1923, when it broadcast an appeal on radio for the Winter Distress League, a charity representing homeless veterans of the First World War. The appeal raised 26 pounds. In 1927 the BBC set up the Appeal Advisory Committee, whose role, to this day, is to decide on the BBC’s choice of charity partners and to oversee campaigns including The Radio 4 Appeal, Comic Relief and Emergency Appeals such as the Haiti Earthquake Appeal, which was broadcast recently.

Commercial broadcasters have also played their part in raising money for charity. In 1988 ITV launched its own all-night charity appeal, in the guise of the ITV Telethon. The 27-hour TV extravaganza saw all of its regional broadcasters come together to raise money for disability charities across the UK and the programme was repeated again in 1990 and 1992. In 2009, Sky Sports ran an interactive red button campaign during the Champions League final so that viewers could donate to a David Beckham-endorsed campaign to raise awareness of malaria.

Programme contributors:

Diane Reid, BBC Charity Appeals Advisor
Lucy Polson, UK Representative for the charity SOS Sahel
Caroline Diehl, chief executive of the Media Trust
Jenni Murray, broadcaster
John Grounds, director of Child Protection Consultancy.

Broadcast on:

BBC Radio 4, 8:00pm Saturday 20th February 2010.”

3 Responses to “How does the media persuade us to give to charities?”

  1. The problem with regarding the photography of suffering as ‘pornography’ | David Campbell

    […] of empathy in recent times? I’m not sure. The size and vitality of the charity sector (see here), whatever the problems with NGOs (see here), might be evidence of on-going ethical commitments. […]

  2. The Back Catalogue: Representing ‘Africa’ | David Campbell

    […] How does the media persuade us to give to charities? […]

  3. “DEVELOPMENT” – What does it mean to me? | Lucy's intdev

    […] bias. Fergal Keane, a foreign affairs correspondent for the BBC concludes that the media tends to “simplify and shock in charity appeal which diminishes context and leads to compassion withou…In reversal to this, I disagree that governments themselves should use their promises of aid as an […]


Leave a Reply