Exploring Media-defined Limits to Altruism by Philip H. Brown

I admire the unconventional and engaging approach to everyday economics undertaken by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their Freakonomics books and long-running associated blog. One of the Freakonomics articles I found most personally engaging was How Pure Is Your Altruism?, which was written in May 2008 following two major natural disasters – a devastating earthquake in China and a large cyclone in Myanmar. The article commented on the uneven distribution of individual American charitable giving following major natural disasters. For example, Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in 1,877deaths, brought in a total of $5.3 billion in individual donations from in the U.S. In contrast, the Asian tsunami of 2004 resulted in an estimated 220,000 deaths and brought in less than $2 billion in donations from Americans. Similarly, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, which resulted in nearly 75,000 deaths, attracted only $150 million in individual U.S. contributions.

Certainly, the fact that Hurricane Katrina was an American disaster, hence closer to home, accounts for much of this difference. However, Levitt and Dubner identify two other factors in explaining low levels of donations, particularly following the Pakistan earthquake: donor fatigue after other high profile natural events and lack of media coverage. In exploring the latter phenomena, the authors excerpted a paragraph from my co-paper “Media Coverage and Charitable Giving After the 2004 Tsunami.” In sum, my paper shows that levels of media coverage following natural disasters have a significant impact on charitable donations made by Americans. Specifically, my co-author and I calculate that each additional minute of nightly television news coverage of a natural disaster results in a 13 percent increase in average donations on that same day. Similarly, each additional 700-word story in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times raises daily average donations by nearly 20 percent.
A sensible question, then, is “what causes certain natural disasters to receive extended coverage, while others are quickly forgotten?” One explanation is that level of media coverage is highly dependent on the occurrence’s distance from major media outlets and resources. Remoteness entails extra expenses in covering the natural disaster. Another significant factor is news cycle timing: both the China and Myanmar disasters occurred at a time when the U.S. Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was heating up, diminishing their media impact.

It seems to me that there are a multitude of opportunities for further research into the links between charitable contributions following natural disasters and the media. For example, given our shift to digital news, and a corresponding diffusion of news sources, it is unclear whether the results of our 2004 study apply to the same degree. I would argue that they do: even on the Internet, most readers never make it past the first page of the online edition of the New York Times, and YouTube video searches often follow reading about a disaster from a primary news source.

About the author: Development economist Philip H. Brown has authored numerous articles on issues such as poverty, vulnerability, natural disasters, and health and environmental economics. The referenced Freakonomics article can be accessed at http://www.freakonomics.com/2008/05/13/how-pure-is-your-altruism/. Phil Brown’s other papers may be accessed at http://www.philbrown.me.