More than ten days after the historic April 25 Nepal earthquake, the death toll has surpassed 7,500 and is still rising. But media coverage is already in decline. This is a concern because, like it or not, our giving follows media coverage. Giving money is a key way to help quickly. But the decisions of how, when, and how much to give have never been as complex as they are today due to technology—nor more connected to what we heard, see, and read online.
The Bible beckons us to use our time, talents, and treasure to help the vulnerable (Acts 10:4). Scripture is rich with examples, such as Nehemiah, of how God has brought about hope, redemption, and recovery through the people of God in times of disaster.
But we cannot sidestep the hard questions: Is giving in the immediate aftermath of a disaster sufficient? Is the huge spike in giving after a sudden disaster a blessing as well as a curse?
These questions lead me to conclude that Nepal needs our support—now and later.
When tracked over a 90-day period, media coverage tends peak about 15 days after a major natural disaster and then appears to drop off sharply. For example, following the 2004 tsunami, researchers at the University of Michigan found that coverage of the event in major newspapers significantly decreased after 15 days. They also found that the number of minutes devoted to the disaster on the major television channels' nightly news drastically decreased.
A study by Salon looked at reporting trends using the The New York Times as a case study following Hurricane Katrina, the Japan tsunami, and the Haiti earthquake. Media coverage took a dive within one to two weeks after each event.
This phenomenon is not limited to media coverage in the United States. The MIT Center for Civic Media analyzed how much front-page coverage was devoted to the Haiti earthquake and Japan tsunami in several Spanish newspapers. Again, coverage drastically dropped off around 15 days after the disasters. Of course, stories on disasters will continue to surface beyond this timeframe. Yet they tend to do so less frequently, and often receive less time on television and fewer words in print media.
There appears to be a direct tie between disaster media coverage and donor giving. This makes common sense, but credible research has now established it. The early phase of disaster response is when the most robust giving occurs. Once the disaster is displaced by other news, people often stop or significantly reduce giving.
A University of Michigan study found that when stories did resurface, giving also increased, though minimally compared to the first few weeks of donations. “Ninety percent of all dollars given to disasters is given within ninety days of a disaster,” Robert Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, told Planet Money. There is also the related problem of “slacktivism.” This is when people substitute social-media sharing for donation of time or money.
The INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group has argued that the amount of media coverage that a particular disaster receives may influence people's perceptions of recovery. I witnessed this first hand. I used to live in southern Mississippi; in fact, my family moved into the area just six days before Hurricane Katrina.
For several years after the event, I gave talks across the country at professional conferences on Katrina. I started each talk the same way: by asking participants where they thought Mississippi was in the recovery process. The more time that passed, the more people assumed everything was back to normal. I would then show the audience pictures I had taken just before heading to the conference, portraying the damage that remained. Many of the participants were shocked at how long and hard the recovery process was for disaster survivors.
Because of the enormity and scope of the Nepal earthquake, recovery is going to take many years. The money donated in the weeks to come will inevitably dry up. This will create a gap between the resources available and the work that remains to be done. No one is able to predict exactly how long the recovery process will take.
The lesson here is that Nepal not only needs your gifts now, but will continue to desperately need your donations throughout what will certainly be a long-term recovery process.
Even the Good Samaritan understood this; after bringing the robbery victim to an innkeeper, he said, "Look after him . . . and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have" (Luke 10:35).
A second gift can make a big difference in helping Nepal’s long-term recovery. Generosity is a relationship, not a transaction.
Jamie D. Aten, PhD, is founder and co-Director of Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute in Wheaton, Illinois. The Humanitarian Disaster Institute is the first Christian academic disaster research center in the country. He is also the co-author of the forthcoming Disaster Ministry Handbook (InterVarsity Press).