the story is told, it was a slow news day at NBC back in 1985 when staffers
looked up at an incoming satellite feed on one of their many monitors. The
newsroom fell silent as a parade of harrowing images from the dying fields of
Ethiopia streamed from the Third World into the third floor at 30 Rockefeller
Center. The scenes of babies with bloated bellies and famine victims dying on
camera in so-called feeding camps were as unbearable to watch as they were hard
to ignore. They were soon being screened in living rooms across the planet as
television news forced the world to confront a human disaster, which most
politicians continued to downplay.
electronic gaze of a thousand Betacams could not be ignored, however. When TV
responded, the world reacted. Soon, rock stars started singing, aid started
flowing and many lives were saved. Despite the uplifting if misleading lyrics of
"We Are The World" (we Americans were not the world), many of us did
care, at least for that minute, about a part of the world we knew very little
by all the awards that the networks later added to their trophy chests, it was
TV’s finest hour. At least, that’s the official story.
truth be told, the truth was only told because one creative and dedicated
photojournalist, the late Kenyan cameraman Mohammed Amin, took it upon himself
to document the horror. At first, few in the news world wanted the story. He had
footage but few takers. Many networks waited for the crisis to become
cataclysmic before dispatching their crews. When BBC and NBC got on it, the rest
of the pack followed so as not to be left behind. In a country of starving
people, the only real feeding frenzy was among competing media outlets.
was confirmation of the old adage that Africans only make the news as victims,
when they suffer calamities, coups and conflicts. TV news lives for powerful
images, and in this case, the graphic pictures meant more than a mere thousand
words. They were a substitute for words and explanation and analysis and
context. As a result, charity, not change, defined the response. Images without
interpretation go in one eye and out the next. The famine was the story du jour;
the follow-up was not.
so, here we are at the dawn of a new century, and the bodies are again being
stacked like cordwood as the land fails to feed Ethiopia one more time. This new
mass famine threat is driven by uneven development, poor agricultural practices,
climate changes, a legacy of war and inadequate aid, and counterproductive
International Monetary Fund programs. Those most affected hope that CNN will
come to the rescue and then perhaps the international community will follow.
the Mozambican media reports criticisms of the West’s slowness to respond with
relief supplies to the flood victims, Media Channel advisor Z. Pallo Jordan, a
member of South Africa’s parliament, emphasizes the importance of continuing
coverage and concern in a recent e-mail to me: "They will probably raise
money while the pictures of babies being born in trees are on the air, but that
will dry up soon. The calculation is that Mozambique’s reconstruction has been
set back 10 years! So on top of having to catch up after their civil war, they
now have add another ten years to that just to get to where they were before the
floods. What we worry about is the period after the hullabaloo has died down and
the reconstruction of infrastrucrure has to start from scratch. There are the
roads, schools, factories, farms etc. that have been devastated. The immediate
appeal for bandages to cover up the wounds is urgent but what about what comes
time around, however, there is no crusading Mohammed Amin or major news
presence. The development agencies and charities who trucked in food and catered
to the dying–however imperfectly–in the l980s saw TV news as an ally to rally
the public to the plight of the world’s poor and oppressed. As the news biz
merges with show biz, that’s rarely the case anymore.
those trying to do something to alleviate suffering see the media as an enemy–a
force that diverts the public away from what’s really going on. (Mother Teresa
once said, "Facing the media is more difficult than bathing a leper.")
The traumatized people who are watching their country disappear under water as
floods engulf Mozambique may get some airtime on CNN, but the aftermath is sure
to be ignored. As for Ethiopia, you can almost hear the cynical mantra:
"Been there, done that." And what about Africa’s AIDS crisis and its
millions of discarded orphans? To quote the movie Donnie Brasco, "Fuhgeddaboudit!"
England, with a long tradition of international documentaries, leading
development and environmental private agencies have just released a study that
confirms what many media critics have been noting for years: Coverage of the
poorest parts of the world has largely been abandoned. Charities that
traditionally study the problems of the poor are now studying the practices of
rich media companies. The Third World and Environmental Broadcasting Project
(3WE) explains why: "TV remains the primary medium through which the
British public is informed about the developing world. Increasing global links
are the fabric of our society…."
as business and politics have globalized," writes John Vidal in the
Guardian, "and as more people than ever are traveling abroad, so British
TV, the prime source of information about the five billion people living in the
larger world, has become more insular, shallower, more opinionated, narrower,
consumer-led, less intelligent and more self-obsessed. Our world map is
diminishing even as our ignorance is increasing."
data is undeniable. Years ago, Globalvision’s human rights series Rights &
Wrongs interviewed media analyst Andrew Tyndall, who documented a 50 percent
decline in the United States on coverage of the news of the world. We noted that
Rupert Murdoch had introduced a feature on his local news shows called "The
World in a Minute." (link to video) This latest British study presents a
similar picture: Total hours devoted to factual programming about the world is
down 50 percent. ITV is off by 74 percent, BBC 2 by a third, Channel 4 by 56
percent. What are these channels running in their place when they do cover the
world? Celebrity-dominated wildlife and travel shows. African lions are on the
air constantly; African people, rarely.
performance of news programs is just as bad. Most U.S. networks shut down many
of their overseas bureaus years ago. But what’s worse, public broadcasters who
once prided themselves on in-depth reporting increasingly resemble the private
commercial news outlets. Media Tenor, the German research firm that does
detailed monitoring internationally, has just documented this pattern in South
Africa and the United Kingdom. Their charts on coverage trends (http://www.medien-tenor.de/english/special/000109.html)
offer an indictment of blatant media failure.
shows about human rights, environmental issues and development subjects are
made, they tend to get aired in marginal time slots, to smaller audiences, and
without advertising or promotion. No wonder the ratings suffer. In the U.S., PBS
would not even distribute a human rights series I co-produced for Globalvision
on the ground that–get this–"human rights is an insufficient organizing
principle for a TV series." This ostrich-like behavior feeds the erroneous
conclusion that "people" don’t want gutsy global journalism, even
providing a phony pseudo-scientific rationale for doing ever fewer such shows.
That in turn inspires talking heads to blather on about "compassion
fatigue" without explaining that the poor quality of programming–or just
plain lack of it–is what feeds negative and uninformed views about the world.
this means is that more and more people are being condemned to die out of public
view. It is only the independent media, and new on-line services like One World
Online (www.oneworld.org), with its more than 700 NGO partners, that keep these
urgent issues in focus.
the Internet will not solve these problems. Communication has to be a two-way
street, with more African voices heard and seen. As an Associated Press report
pointed out last month, "If you live in North America or Europe, there is a
one in six chance that you used the Internet in the late ’90s. If you live in
Africa, however, that probability drops to one in 5,000, according to a new
report issued by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization." The
conscientious Chilean diplomat Juan Somavia, who heads the ILO, warns that
"countries lacking the skills, money or infrastructure to develop
information technology are falling victim to a burgeoning ‘digital
worse is a "news divide," where media companies focus on the least
important stories and ignore the most urgent. Instead of enabling change, they
have become an obstacle to it. Instead of facilitating democracy, they threaten
it by refusing to inform and inspire. I will be in England next week at
Leicester University for a conference (http://www.le.ac.uk/cmcr/cp46/NEWS.html–CKTK
from ALEX) on International News to discuss what media insiders, researchers and
activists can do about this.
became a journalist to help spotlight the problems of the world. It is now clear
that global media is one of them.
Schechter became known as the "News Dissector" as a radio newscaster
in the l970s. He is the executive editor of MediaChannel.org and author of
"The More You Watch, The Less You Know" and of the forthcoming
"News Dissector" (Electronpress.com), a collection of his columns