In the face of humanitarian crises, the responsibility to help by civil or military means represents a major issue of public debate. Because of uncertainty regarding the scale of human suffering, its local context, and causes, societies abroad are in great need of credible information and interpretations about what crises ‘mean to them’, in terms of their own capacities and duties. The media play a key role in providing an infrastructure to disseminate such meaning, but in order to convince their audiences of the credibility of death tolls, moral obligations, and effective means available to mitigate suffering, they need to refer to trustworthy and competent sources. This is where a variety of international governmental and non-governmental organizations (IGOs/INGOs) like United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) gets extensive coverage by mass media, as humanitarian ‘authorities’ who compensate for the lack of interpretational certainty of journalists and their audiences. Following the sociological line of reasoning about ‘authority’ as a certain mode of power, these organizations are influential actors in contemporary humanitarian politics – not in terms of coercion or incentives, but with respect to the willingness of people to be influenced by the interpretations and prescriptions of these actors. In this vein, the chapter addresses the topic of a bidirectional, elite-media linkage from the vantage point of international relations scholars’ common intuition that the locus of authority in the international realm has shifted to a remarkable extent from states to a heterogeneous patchwork of governmental and non-governmental actors. Media actors, I contend, play an important role in the construction and reproduction of these ‘new’ authorities. By privileging one source over others, journalists help to bring about and reify the shared recognition of a variety of governmental and non-governmental actors as authoritative, among them major IGOs like UNHCR or the World Food Programme and INGOs like Oxfam, MSF or CARE. To make this point, the chapter proceeds in two steps. First, I introduce the concept of authority as a certain mode of power and discuss its communication in terms of ‘authority talk’. Second, I focus more narrowly on the role of authority talk in the context of mass media coverage of humanitarian crises. For some sort of ‘plausibility probe’, I draw recurrently on a reconstructive analysis of the
authority talk found in the coverage of the Darfur crisis in the Guardian and the New York Times. With respect to such coverage, the media-politics linkage is commonly perceived to prove a simple ‘indexing hypotheses’, namely, the conjecture that the decision-making power of political elites is what makes them the dominant sources of reporting. Nevertheless, as can be shown, governments are repeatedly introduced as authoritative sources on humanitarian matters. In addition, the analysis provides some evidence for my claim that media coverage reflects authority recognition of humanitarian IGOs/INGOs to a remarkable extent as well. Therefore, ‘power indexing’ yields at best only a partial understanding of the media-politics linkage; journalistic authority talk thus becomes an important part of humanitarian crisis coverage by mass media. Some final conclusions about the fruitfulness of such an approach for the issues of ‘media power’ and the ‘world polity’ are drawn, and some possible routes for future research are suggested.