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Posted 02.25.05

Policy Factors and New York Times Stories Significantly Influence U.S. Humanitarian Aid

COLUMBIA, Mo. - After December's tsunami catastrophe in Asia, the United States was called upon to provide humanitarian aid to the ravaged region. While this disaster assistance is assumed by some to be non-political in deciding who receives what and how much, a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher found that U.S. domestic and foreign policy factors greatly affect these disaster decisions. Also, aid is strongly influenced by the number of New York Times stories that appear about a natural disaster.

"Foreign disaster aid may be humanitarian by definition, but decisions to grant and allocate disaster relief are made in a political environment," said A. Cooper Drury, assistant professor of political science at MU, who conducted the study along with Richard Olson of Florida International University and Douglas Van Belle of Victoria University of Wellington. "Clearly, event severity plays a large and appropriately significant role in the allocation of disaster assistance, but it's also clear that media coverage -- that is, salience -- plays an even larger role."

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Drury examined foreign disaster assistance data from 1964 through 1995, consisting of 2,337 natural disaster cases over the 32-year period. During that time, disasters killed more than two million people and rendered more than 100 million homeless worldwide. Drury found that a 66 percent of the catalogued disasters did not receive any U.S. aid.

Drury also found the more democratic the affected nation was, the more likely the U.S. would provide disaster aid. Also, alliance ties with the disaster-stricken country significantly increased the likelihood that disaster assistance would be provided. According to the data, allies received 78 percent of the U.S. aid, while 11 percent went to non-allies. Drury also noted that the number killed in a disaster was not significant, but the number made homeless by a disaster did influence the decision process.

What Drury found most surprising though was the impact the New York Times had on the aid distribution. For each story the Times printed about a disaster, an additional half million dollars was allocated on average by the U.S. Drury said this finding was striking because disaster severity is controlled by the number killed and made homeless, and that for each disaster-induced fatality, the affected country receives $395 in aid on average. In other words, one New York Times article was worth more disaster aid dollars than 1,500 fatalities.

"That U.S. officials use, consciously or not, such information in their decisions underscores the power of the media," Drury said.

Drury's study will be published in the May edition of The Journal of Politics.



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