The famine in Somalia has only gotten worse with each passing day. The United Nations is calling it the “worst humanitarian disaster” in the world, with 10 million people in need of humanitarian aid and 2 million malnourished children of lifesaving treatment.
For budget-stretched news outlets, the question of whether or not to send a reporter to a disaster region is a challenging one. With foreign bureaus shuttered and with viewers seemingly more interested in political fights than refugee crises, stories like the Somalia famine often get short shrift.
ABC News' weekend anchor David Muir has been bucking the trend, though. Muir went to the region on Sunday to report on the conditions in the area's largest refugee camp at Dadaab, Kenya. He traveled to Dadaab from Nairobi via UN plane, and was embedded with Doctors Without Borders.
“The numbers of refugees are swelling to the point where there’s no room for them in the camps that exist," Muir told The Huffington Post from the Doctors Without Borders compound on Wednesday night.
He described the sight of “people lining these roads” from Somalia to the camp as “extraordinary,” and explained that refugees are now forming makeshift camps after being told they will have to wait eight to ten weeks to enter.
ABC has sought to lead coverage of the crisis, declaring itself the first American network with a reporter on the ground to cover the famine. ABC’s Lama Hassan first reported from Kenya last Saturday, followed by Muir a week later. British network ITV has been covering the crisis for NBC.
Muir’s first segment, which focused on the children affected by the famine, aired on Wednesday night, the same day as the first airlift of food aid since the UN declared the famine the week before. Doctors Without Borders gave ABC and ITV access into their intensive care unit, where correspondents captured footage of severely malnourished children receiving treatment. When Muir asked one doctor if she had ever seen the situation in Somalia so bad, she responded, "No."
But Muir also highlighted the progress that some children had made after a few days in the pediatric ward, mentioning one child who was sitting up on her third day in the hospital after being severely malnourished.
Speaking on Wednesday, Muir said he hoped the piece would show “the resiliency of the kids who made the journey with their parents.” He described his own reaction to the crisis, saying, “I think it’s heartbreaking and when you walk into these intensive care units, you can’t help but look at their mothers and the children lying next to them, and hope that they’ll be the ones sitting up tomorrow.”
Muir's presence in the camp came after a scramble by ABC to react to the famine. Reports from the UN and the network’s contacts in Johannesburg prompted the network to begin preparations—including seeking permissions from the refugee camp and relief agencies -- for expanded on-the-ground coverage three weeks ago, according to ABC’s foreign editor Tom Nagorski.
The major networks' varied approaches to covering the crisis are in part the result of cutbacks to international reporting and the closure of foreign bureaus in the past two decades. ABC's office in Nairobi is the network's only bureau in Africa since the closure of its Johannesburg bureau, and it is the only bureau on the continent exclusively maintained by an American network. ABC established the office and several other small international outposts in 2007, after closing their full-time bureaus in Moscow, Paris, Tokyo. The seven mini-bureaus reportedly cost as much to run as the now-shuttered Paris bureau.
ABC typically relies on the office's lone correspondent Dana Hughes, who shoots and edits her own reports from the region, while bringing in other correspondents for bigger stories. Muir declined to answer specifically about ABC's presence on the continent, but noted that he was last in Africa to interview Michelle Obama on her tour of Cape Town in June.
Muir credited the story with pushing him forward after a hectic week anchoring “Good Morning America” last Monday through Thursday and “World News” Wednesday through Sunday. When asked to describe the public response to the story, Muir expressed, “My very basic hope is that they’ll be more informed.” He added, laughing, "I can't remember the last day I've had off."