Media merchants of life and death

TORONTO (CUP) — What factors determine the tragedies that show up on the news, and what happens when the latest story gets in the way of a bigger — but less popular — crisis?

Sit a news correspondent down with a representative of a leading international relief agency and those questions, sooner or later, hit the table.

"Guess what? Afghanistan is not the only country that has lots of stuff going on," says Isabelle Jeanson, the Canadian national press officer for Doctors Without Borders. "Other things just don’t get covered because they don’t have a Canadian angle in some way, so that’s very, very frustrating."

Thus bird flu — so far a non-starter as a mass killer — gets ink, while resurgent malaria — a scourge of biblical proportions — goes largely unreported. When millions faced starvation in Zimbabwe, donors were deterred from giving assistance because media coverage indicated government corruption had caused the agricultural collapse.

When Jonathan Manthorpe, a correspondent and columnist with the Vancouver Sun, was dispatched to India to cover a bubonic plague outbreak a decade ago, he was disconcerted to find a much bigger killer at large, one that was largely ignored.

Manthorpe recalls that during the three weeks he and his colleagues were compelled to cover about 31 plague deaths, 45,000 people quietly died of tuberculosis in India. To this day a relatively easy-to-treat tuberculosis epidemic continues to make the Doctors Without Borders’ list of the top 10 under-reported news stories.

Manthorpe noted a similar hyperbolic media response to the reasonably contained SARS outbreak. A Rutgers University study found in the six months after SARS broke out, it was generating over 10 times the number of stories dedicated to AIDS, a disease that more closely resembles a modern-day plague.

"I’m just astonished at the industry that pumps up fear and despondency," Manthorpe says. "Running around and warning of death and destruction is a pretty major industry these days and I think it behooves journalists to try to impart a little reality on these things."

Manthorpe worries the ’90s legacy of closing foreign news bureaus has heightened this type of sensationalistic and decontextualized coverage.

A lack of specialized overseas reporters has narrowed the likelihood of foreign coverage unless it has a strong Canadian component. Manthorpe notes that coverage of Afghanistan has really just followed what Canadians are doing in the country, rather than what is actually happening.

"Whether you can legitimately call that a piece of foreign corresponding I think is questionable," Manthorpe says. He notes the reconstruction effort has, therefore, been almost completely ignored in favour of military stories.

Meanwhile, the few remaining foreign journalists must grapple with the difficulty of getting the most-effective angles on tragedies to compete for diminished news space.

Aid agencies and journalists alike are continually attempting to diversify their coverage in an effort to persuade editors that Canadians are not exclusively interested in domestic stories. There is an enduring debate over precisely what type of coverage is most effective in triggering public empathy.

Anthea Webb, the senior public relations officer of the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), ticks off from memory the news stories that moved donors to respond, such as a story on a little girl whose leg was shot off during the Kosovo war. The piece resulted in her being tracked down by an Argentine billionaire interested in paying her medical bills for life.

"I think it comes back to personal stories," Webb says. She also sees it as human nature to admire people who overcome adversity.

For this reason the WFP has broadly publicized the case of Paul Tergat. Twenty-seven years ago, Tergat was a recipient of a Kenyan school lunch program. Today he is one of the most high-profile marathon runners in the world and a WFP ambassador against hunger.

"You can highlight those people who do manage to overcome really difficult circumstances, like Paul Tergat, who couldn’t remember having had a decent lunch until he got a school feeding meals in Kenya, yet went on to break a world record and who inspired people," Webb says.

Webb concedes that, given the rarity of good news in the media in general, it is unsurprising that positive international coverage is even less frequent.

"There are plenty of good stories," she says, but adds, "the fact is that the stats in Africa overall are going the wrong way. There are more hungry people, the infant mortality rates are growing rather than decreasing."

The power of the media to mobilize public response and government action became starkly obvious during the recent famine in Niger. Despite numerous WFP appeals, donor support didn’t start pouring in until the BBC picked up the story, though by that time the crisis had reached a critical point for many people.

"It wasn’t until people literally saw babies dying on their screens that governments and private individuals paid attention," Webb says.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) face a catch-22 when trying to bring attention to overlooked disasters, according to Joshua Greenberg, a communications professor at Carleton University who specializes in non-profit organizations.

"The easiest way to get the attention of the news media is to provide storylines that already resonate with dominant cultural scripts," he says.

In performing for the cameras, Greenberg suggests NGOs can unintentionally contribute to news predictability, perpetuating the same generic coverage that lulls the public into complacency.

Manthorpe’s experience as a correspondent based in Zimbabwe also taught him that there are a limited number of stories in Africa you can persuade people to accept, namely death, destruction and wildlife.

John Riley is currently writing a book about the media’s ability to compel foreign policy makers to react. The political science professor at Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University suggests NGOs like Doctors Without Borders were wise in moving away from the "Sally Struthers" approach: pity-based campaigns that plead for funds with the image of a group of starving children. He argues that what viewers find compelling is when the story is less about the tragedy and more about how donors perceive themselves.

Even in the case of Rwanda, Riley suggests interest remains high today because it is essentially telling a Western story. It reveals the American failure to intervene, which contradicts the country’s self-perceptions.

Reuters AlertNet was formed in the wake of Rwanda, with the explicit mandate to increase coverage of humanitarian crises, so that such tragedies do not re-occur in obscurity.

Mark Jones, editor of AlertNet, points to a joint study conducted with the Columbia School of Journalism revealing international news coverage has increased moderately in the past five years, despite the contrary perception of many aid agencies.

Jones notes journalists often need access to more NGO sources and resources because they have to fight their internal gatekeepers to cover international crises that can be expensive and dangerous, and that don’t always come with guaranteed audience interest.

"We feel that it is possible to equip journalists with some weapons and some arguments [to] go to their news editors and program editors with so that they can hopefully persuade them it is worthwhile covering these things," Jones explains.

Jones finds news audiences are getting more penetrating and in-depth coverage of the issues aid agencies grapple with on a daily basis. Underlying health and environmental issues that are often glazed over in disaster reporting were tapped into during the tsunami and have since been expanded in other disasters.

Yet the recurring dilemma of the lack of coverage for the most enduring and deadly problems continues. Webb notes that virtually all WFP’s funding is exclusively for short-term disaster assistance, even though the majority of people die from chronic, long-term hunger.

"Ninety per cent die off-camera in places that never even cross most people’s minds. They’re slums, they’re just generally dirt-poor rural areas where people have never really gotten enough to eat. They just don’t happen to have had a war or a drought or a flood or an earthquake."

Webb says it is a pity that most people don’t know that hunger kills more people than AIDS and tuberculosis combined.

"Judging by the news coverage, most people would be forgiven for not knowing that because more coverage tends to be focused on those big issues," Webb says. "That’s not to diminish them, but in numeric terms, hunger is not as big a story."

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