81782 - Humanitarian Communication (LM)

Academic Year 2021/2022

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course, the student will be able to understand and analyze the way the western media covers the developing world and the humanitarian emergencies. Being more specific, the student will be able to understand and analyze: - the emerging and historical humanitarian narratives, with particular reference to the way in which the activities of NGOs are reported; - how we understand and explain faraway disasters; - how the media representations of suffering and violence has changed in the post cold war period and in the digital era; - the relationship between media, aid, corporate communication and branding; - the relationship between power, media and migration.

Course contents

The course is organized with the lectures taught in presence and at the same time online on MS TEAMS. The number of students allowed in class is determined on the basis of class capacity and by the health and safety provisions that deal with the pandemic emergency. In case more students want to attend classes in presence than permitted by the rules, a system of shifts will be organized so to allow students to participate. Regardless of the health-related conditions and the specific organization of the course, students will be able to follow the lessons of the entire course remotely on MS TEAMS.


Media has for long played a central role in shaping the humanitarian field — and perhaps more specifically, the international community’s representations of the humanitarian field. The media’s role in covering humanitarian issues are manifold: from mediating and mediatizing humanitarian crises, initiating or serving as a platform for alerts about unfolding crises, to reporting on underlying causes of crises. Its power to frame perceptions about the key issues at stake in a crisis, or to spark attention through a carefully selected image are well-known. Humanitarian actors are also well aware of this power of media in drawing attention to crises, and thus attracting more political attention and international donations, as can be seen in the ways humanitarian organizations’ campaigns are organized.

This course aims to encourage students to think sociologically about a range of issues and “social problems” related to the different ways in which media is used to report on humanitarian situations, and what impact this has.

It also serves as an introduction to some important themes and issues within humanitarianism and migration. Areas under study include: the construction of “social problems”, media, ethics, human rights, disaster relief, war, famine, refugee camps, social movements, NGOs.  A special focus is dedicated to the mediated performances that contribute to create the spectacle of the humanitarian border, which is physically and simbolically enacted by the different actors involved in contemporary management of migration.

Moving from the assumption that our awareness of nearly all humanitarian issues is defined by the media, this course looks at the literature associated with humanitarian organizations and the NGO narratives, tracing the imagined and real encounters between solidarity, participation, and citizenship in the context of larger social processes of mediation and globalization.

Examining humanitarian communication through various forms of aesthetic activism - documentary, photojournalism, benefit concerts, celebrities, live blogging -  the course invites students to explore how the circulation of humanitarian images and narratives impact the peoples it aims to serve, and what can we learn about global inequality from the stories associated with it.

In particular, this year the course will (also) focus on how several news media framed Covid-19 as an invisible enemy, using metaphor of war to describe the current situation. The definition of the emergency as a war conducts inevitably to the identification of an enemy. The hyper-visibility of the war against this invisible enemy leads to a generalized fear of ‘the others’ and to the identification of this invisibility in visible bodies.

Finally, the course reflects on long-term implications of the pandemic on mobility justice (Sheller 2018) and what Mbembe (2020) has defined the ‘right to breath’.


Preciado Paul B. (2020): Learning from the virus. Available at: https://www.artforum.com/print/202005/paul-b-preciado-82823

Mbembe, A. (2000): The universal right to breathe, Critical Inquiry. Available at: https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-universal-right-to-breathe/

Giacomelli Elena, Musarò Pierluigi, Parmiggiani Paola (2020): How Covid-19 re-framed the Migration Discourses in Italy. A Qualitative Analysis of Media and Public Narratives during the Pandemic (forthcoming short article).

Calhoun Craig (2008): The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress, and Emergencies in the Field of Humanitarian Action. In: Barnett, Michael/Weiss, Thomas George (eds.):Humanitarianism in Question. Politics, Power, Ethics. Ithaca: Cornell University, 73-97.

Chouliaraki Lilie (2012): The Ironic Spectator. Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism. Cambridge: Polity Press (Chapters 1 and 2).

Fassin Didier (2007): Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life. In: Public Culture, 19 (3), 499-520.

Kurasawa Fuyuki (2019): On Humanitarian Virality: Kony 2012, or, The Rise and Fall of a Pictorial Artifact in the Digital Age, Visual Communication.

Bunce Mel (2019), Humanitarian Communication in a Post-Truth World. In: Journal of Humanitarian Affairs: https://www.manchesteropenhive.com/view/journals/jha/1/1/article-p49.xml

Wihtol de Wenden, Catherine (2016): Actual Patterns of Migration Flows: The Challenge of Migration and Asylum in Contemporary Europe. In: Grimmel, Andreas/Giang, Susanny My (eds.): Solidarity in the European Union. Heildelberg: Springer, 67-79.

Andersson Ruben (2016): Europe’s failed ‘fight’ against irregular migration: ethnographic notes on a counterproductive industry. In: Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 42 (7), 1055-1075.

Musarò Pierluigi (2018) European borderscapes. The management of migration between care and control, in Lawrence M. and Tavernor R. (ed.), Global Humanitarianism and Media Culture, Manchester University Press, pp. 145-166. 

Musarò Pierluigi (2019), Aware Migrants: The role of information campaigns in the management of migration, European Journal of Communication, 34, pp. 629 – 640 

Hall Nina (2017): Innovations in Activism in the Digital Era. Campaigning for Refugee Rights in 2015-16. In: List, Regina (eds.):The Governance Report 2017. Oxford: Hertie School of Governance, 143-156.

Musarò Pierluigi, Moralli Melissa, Parmiggiani Paola (2019), Borders Kill. Tania Bruguera’s Referendum as an Artistic Strategy of Political Participation, «JOURNAL OF MEDITERRANEAN KNOWLEDGE», 4(2), pp. 137 - 160

Musarò Pierluigi, Moralli Melissa (2019), De-Bordering Narratives on Tourism and Migration. A Participatory Action- Research on Two Innovative Italian Practices, Italian Journal of Sociology of Education, 11(2), 147-173.


In preparation of the exam please read the:

- IOM X C4D Toolkit: http://iomx.org/iom-x-c4d-toolkit/

Take this as a guide to frame your analysis, you do not need to follow it closely.

- What policy communication works for migration? Using values to depolarise: https://www.euneighbours.eu/sites/default/files/publications/2020-08/EMM4_OPAM__3rd_chapter_Using_values_to_depolarise.pdf

Further readings and references (book chapters, articles, papers, documents, video) will be provided during the course.

Teaching methods

A mix of lectures, seminars, collective discussion, student's presentations, documentaries and films on the issues of media and humanitarianism.

Assessment methods

Short Essay 20%

Active participation and group presentation 30% 

Final exam 50%

Participation: Since this is a seminar, active participation in class is a crucial part of your learning.  Through news articles, videos,  web sites, or readings you will help the teacher to stimulate discussion during the class.

Presentation and final exam: This is a research-based presentation – intended as a synthesis of both the literary and political materials we have discussed during the course - that you (or your study group) will read or present to the class in whatever format you wish. Further, there is a final in class exam in which the students are required to answer to some open questions.

Short Essay: This will be on a focused topic of your choice, drawing on research and careful analysis of select readings for the class. Further guidance will be given in class

To pass the course you must pass ALL assessments.

To register the final grade is necessary that you enrol in the official dates in the website Almaesami (https://almaesami.unibo.it/almaesami/welcome.htm) .

For those students who did not pass the exam, or wish to improve their score, it is MANDATORY to write a paper of 5000 words that includes-quotes ALL the papers of the program.

You have to deliver it printed in my office at least 2 weeks before the data of the oral exam and then you will discuss your work (and the program) during the exam.

It is NOT POSSIBLE to do the oral exam if the paper was not delivered before.


If you DO NOT ATTEND the course and you would like to do the exam, please contact the professor in advance.


Teaching tools

Papers, articles, films and documentaries, web sites.

Office hours

See the website of Pierluigi Musarò


No poverty Reduced inequalities Climate Action Peace, justice and strong institutions

This teaching activity contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.