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The Unreported Stories

March 4, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: International reporting has been an endangered species on American television and in U.S. newspapers in recent years, until September 11. Suddenly the world beyond our borders was news, and reporters were dispatched to unfamiliar corners of the globe.

Television coverage turned on a dime, speeding away from its saturating summertime obsession with the Condit-Levy affair, focusing instead on a high-stakes and sometimes shadowy war. But despite this attention, other important international stories remain largely uncovered. Andrew Tyndall monitors television news coverage.

ANDREW TYNDALL, Publisher, The Tyndall Report: It hasn’t rubbed off. There’s been interest, greater interest in international affairs, foreign affairs in general. What they’ve done is what they’ve always done, which is they’ve followed the troops.

TERENCE SMITH: Where troops are not deployed, coverage remains meager. Highlighting the problem, Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning international relief agency, has compiled its fourth annual list of ten most under-covered humanitarian emergencies of 2001.

The catalog of crises spans the globe, but four of the ten are in Africa. In Burundi, a devastating malaria epidemic racks a nation already ravaged by a decade of civil war. For the past five years, civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has further devastated a stricken health care system. According to Doctors without Borders, each Congolese doctor serves 25,000 people. In West Africa, a burgeoning refugee crisis brought on, again, by civil wars affects the neighboring nations of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. And in Somalia, despite renewed American interest as part of the war on terrorism, the East African nation remains decimated. It lacks a central government, infrastructure, and health care.

Elsewhere around the world, the organization points to violence in Colombia, now in its fourth decade, where the civil war has sent millions fleeing from the countryside into cities. Despite massive U.S. assistance, coverage of Colombia remains spotty. The ongoing war in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya continued unabated last year. The refugee crisis there has worsened significantly.

North Korea, where refugees seeking to escape famine and government persecution, still face more hardship when trying to enter China. They are denied entry and aid; many are sent back to face reeducation camps and possible execution. The 20-year civil war in the island nation of Sri Lanka has killed 60,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands more. In besieged areas, health care systems have broken down, and despair among the displaced has led to a skyrocketing suicide rate.

Two of the crises cited know no nationality. Doctors without Borders estimates that 14 million people dies last year alone from such ailments as tuberculosis, malaria, and sleeping sickness. And the seemingly endless plight of refugees around the world worsened. Doctors without Borders says violations of the international conventions governing the treatment of the estimated 45 million refugees worldwide only intensified. In these cases, the organization argues, no news does not mean good news.

TERENCE SMITH: To discuss the list and its implications, we’re joined by Nicholas de Torrente, the executive director of Doctors without Borders. Welcome to you. What do you hope to accomplish by putting out this list of underreported stories?

NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE, Executive Director, Doctors Without Borders: Well, our field volunteers, doctors, are dealing with very difficult situations. They’re trying to provide assistance to people in very dire circumstances, and sometimes medical assistance is just not enough, and what we hope to accomplish and what we think is our real responsibility is to try to raise awareness about some of these situations, the plight of the people that we’re trying to help, raise awareness about them, provoke greater understanding of their situation and a healthier and more informed public debate around these situations. It’s really, for us, a precondition to any kind of meaningful action, political action in particular, that can help resolve and address these terrible situations that we are dealing with in the field.

TERENCE SMITH: Some sort of coverage as a precondition?

NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE: That’s right, and we have been increasingly frustrated over the years in terms of what we’ve perceived to be a decline in coverage, particularly of some of the issues that we’ve tried to highlight in this list of ten underreported stories every year.

TERENCE SMITH: Given the gravity of these stories, why do you think they are underreported?

NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, I think there’s a little bit of a vicious circle here. The media assumes that the American public is not really interested in these types of issues, in foreign stories, of people far away from the United States, and therefore devotes very little resources and attention to them. The coverage, therefore, is limited, and therefore the ratings are low; and if the ratings are low, you know, this does not give any incentive to news organizations to devote more attention and resources. So we’re trapped in a bit of a vicious cycle here.

TERENCE SMITH: There’s been a great deal of speculation about the impact of September 11 on all sorts of society and all sorts of problems. What about this? Has it served at all as a wake-up call towards more coverage of stories like these?

NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, I think that the coverage of Afghanistan in particular has showed us really that some of the basic assumptions behind the lack of coverage in general is wrong; that, you know, Americans are very hungry for, for international news. They’re very hungry for the type of knowledge and information about these types of contexts.

When the news reports… the news organizations started to report about the plight of civilians in Afghanistan, it really touched Americans. They felt great concern about it, and this, for us, is a really hopeful sign of the fallout of September 11 in terms of international coverage. The flip side to that, though, however, is that coverage of other stories… since news organizations devoted so many resources to cover Afghanistan that other stories and other situations have been lacking in coverage, that the few foreign correspondents have been pulled, from Africa in particular, to go and cover the situation in Afghanistan.

TERENCE SMITH: Of course in Afghanistan American troops were involved. Is that the formula: Where there are troops, there’s coverage?

NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, of course the media went to report on the anti- terrorist campaign and the military efforts, and people were very interested in that, but I think what happened is that, although the civilian situation, the humanitarian situation was covered a little bit as a sideshow in the beginning, it really did catch on in terms of people’s, you know, awareness and attention, and that people became very interested in that, and it became a real story in its own right, and for us, that’s a very hopeful sign.

There are other examples of that that prove, you know, that Americans are hungry for this type of coverage. I think the AIDS pandemic in Africa, you know, you could say this is very far away, these are people suffering from a disease that is, you know, in many ways it’s hard to comprehend, but news organizations did devote resources to it, there’s been intensive coverage, and people have really caught on and been interested. And as a result, we’re starting to see real movement in terms of the treatment of patients affected by HIV and AIDS in Africa.

TERENCE SMITH: You know, there was a book a couple years ago, came out with the title Compassion Fatigue, and I wonder if that’s involved here. Is there simply too much for people to take in like this?

NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, Terence, I don’t think so. I think the issue really is the type of coverage and, you know, what you can get out of it. If you have very quick, superficial coverage of what are very difficult, complex issues, then of course the people will sort of turn off and blank out and will not be interested, and you’ll see sort of an ongoing litany of anarchy, chaos, crisis without rhyme or reason.

However, if do you look at issues and put resources and attention to them and sort of try to understand them, then people will catch on, and you’ll see not only the human side of it that does grab people, and there is a connection that is established, but also the fact that we are connected to these stories, and I think that’s maybe also a hopeful thing about September 11, if there can be one, is that there’s a sort of a broadening of what is, you know, this American angle that the news organizations tend to look for.

We are starting to really understand that we are connected in so many different ways to crisis situations and to people who are very far away from us, and if you go into detail and look and have a quality reporting, I think you will overcome this compassion fatigue, which is really due to superficial and, you know, coverage that doesn’t go into the issues in depth.

TERENCE SMITH: Nicholas de Torrente, thank you very much.

NICHOLAS DE TORRENTE: You’re very welcome. Thank you for having me.