Emergency relief charities are failing to exploit online technology and are consequently losing out on the press exposure that could help generate public attention and donations, according to a new study published today.

The study, jointly commissioned by Reuters AlertNet and the Fritz Institute, examines media coverage of humanitarian relief and is based on a global survey of relief organisation press officers and journalists who cover international disasters.

It concludes that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are vastly under-using technology and resources available to them that could boost their media relations.

With reporters lacking funding to make field visits and an increase in 'crisis fatigue', relief charities face an up-hill struggle to publicise many disasters, with some getting little or no on-going attention.

In the absence of funding for trips and timely information from press officers, reporters are increasingly reliant on NGO websites. But the sites often lack the contact details, information and photographs that journalists need.

Furthermore, few sites are organised so that Google and other search engines can search reliably beyond their home page. Yet almost half (43 per cent) of the journalists surveyed said they looked for organisations working at the scene by using search engines.

Most NGOs do not link to one another on their websites, much to the frustration of journalists; many said they believe NGOs to be "in a crisis together" and should make more effort to acknowledge each other.

"Lack of reporters permanently covering crises, crisis fatigue and insufficient funding for journalist visits are undoubtedly difficult issues to overcome," said Mark Jones, editor of AlertNet. "However, what NGOs can control are their communications with press.

"Our research confirms that, even without significant additional funding, NGOs can do much to improve on some of the very basics of media communications. Furthermore, the potential of internet technologies has barely begun to be exploited by NGOs.

"Improving on these two areas could mean the difference between humanitarian relief operations getting any public attention or going un-reported."

* 'Towards New Understandings: Journalists and Humanitarian Relief Coverage' was carried out by Professor Steven Ross, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York.

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