December 27, 1999
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
TERENCE SMITH: By now the images are familiar: Ethnic
slaughter provoking NATO action over Kosovo, earthquake
devastation in Turkey, mayhem in East Timor -- a global catalogue of
crises thrust into American living rooms, far away places brought close
by the presence of cameras and reporters.
|Changing times mean less international coverage|
JOELLE TANGUY: Well in fact it started last year. We were so frustrated during the Monica Lewinsky scandal that we were facing a massive famine in southern Sudan, and were not able to break the news. And we started to realize this was not the first occasion. There had been, during the year, a number of crises that had been completely under-reported, sometimes not even mentioned in the media. And we were faced this year with a slight improvement. There were -- the Kosovo crisis was portrayed extensively -- East Timor as well -- a number of others. But still, there were a number of crises on the list that got no coverage and were having dramatic impact on civilian populations. So we decided to issue it again, until we finally get the debate possibly changed in reporting of humanitarian crises around the world.
TERENCE SMITH: Barrie Dunsmore is somebody who has covered a lot of foreign news over the years for ABC. Does this ring true to you, and if true, why true?
DUNSMORE: Well, it does, Terry. But I don't think it can be limited
to just something like the Lewinsky scandal, because I think there have
been some profound structural changes in news coverage, certainly in
our country in the last decade. The three most important ones are: The
end of the Cold War. Now, I know that's almost a cliché today,
but one cannot overemphasize how important the Cold War was for the
reality of foreign coverage. I would say that in the 30 years that I
was a network correspondent, 90 percent of the stories that I did had
some Cold War element, even when they were humanitarian stories.
TERENCE SMITH: Joelle Tanguy, does that seem to you to be the reason for this relative lack of coverage?
JOELLE TANGUY: It rings true. It rings true in the sense that what we've seen is basically a real kind of media culture effect, and one that seeks the American angle, and the Cold War issue was really seeking that American angle which cannot be necessarily found. Even a year before an intervention in Kosovo, there was no American angle. There was one, a real one, a year later. But there was -- We've also witnessed something -- which is dramatic -- is the lack of resources in the media for covering international news. When you think about it, CNN, which has a reputation of covering international news, has reduced its world coverage to half an hour a day, and let's say the East Africa correspondent for the New York Times is one person covering 22 countries, eight of them are at war. So there's really an issue of where the resources are allocated now.
TERENCE SMITH: Barrie Dunsmore, have you seen that reduction in resources?
BARRIE DUNSMORE: Oh, absolutely, and I think for the reasons that I've just cited. There used to be many, many foreign correspondents for all the networks and for all the major newspapers and magazines. I don't know what that number is now compared to what it used to be, but my guess is it's no more than a quarter, and it might be even significantly less that that. ABC used to have bureaus in virtually every major capital of the world, now it's London, and occasionally they'll have somebody in the Middle East, and occasionally, but not even on a full-time basis, people in Moscow. Again, the resources are going to the magazine shows particularly, which are the ones that they hope, at least, will be the cash cows to bring in the big bucks. Foreign news, once again, just doesn't make it.
|Public will respond to quality coverage|
TERENCE SMITH: Barrie, is this, in your view -- which is the chicken and which is the egg here? Is it that the public has less interest, or that the media organizations focus less for their own reasons?
BARRIE DUNSMORE: Well, I think you've reached a very interesting conclusion there, because it's hard sometimes to know which of the two, because sometimes, if the networks were able to set the agenda -- which certainly they did in the old days when there were only just the three of us -- that would, in itself, attract a great deal of attention not just from viewers, but also from other news organizations, newspapers, and magazines. So certainly that's an important thing.
I do recall that in the last years that I was working, ABC -- because Peter Jennings wanted it -- spent a lot of time focusing on the problems of Bosnia. And on one particular occasion, we did a special in prime time which actually ended up beating one of the Final Four games of college basketball, much to everyone's consternation. But as a general proposition, the feeling is that these kinds of programs do not get good ratings, and therefore they're not put on the air. But I think there is some evidence to suggest that if we did pay more attention to them, they would, in fact, get better ratings.
TERENCE SMITH: Joelle Tanguy, do you find that there is a racial or cultural bias at work here, in this relative lack of coverage? Some of the ones that you cited, six of the 10, in fact, of the stories, of the crises, are in Africa. Would it be different -- is Kosovo different from Kinshasa?
TANGUY: Maybe, maybe. The fact is, African crises have been definitely
under-reported. But I think that also, because we've somehow over the
years developed a fundamentally blurred understanding of Africa, lumped
into one single kind of country, as opposed to the variety on the continent
of the countries' situations lumped into that general image of a continent
that's plagued by disease and wars and so on, whereas in fact they are
dramatically different realities, and we don't have really a good understanding
of Africa, and we're not helping by having only a coverage at a time
of visible crisis, of something of interesting nature as opposed to
a really thorough attempt at understanding and covering in depth.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. I'm pleased that we're joined now by Susan Moeller, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University, and the author of Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death. Welcome. You're a victim, a bit, of Washington traffic. We're glad that you're here.
SUSAN MOELLER: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: We've been talking about just that. Compassion fatigue. Explain it in your terms.
|Lack of information behind apathy|
SUSAN MOELLER: Well, I think there's really two kinds of compassion fatigue. One is the kind of compassion fatigue that the audience feels. And that's where we feel helpless, like we can't do anything, particularly when faced by an intractable crisis. But I think what's more the point in this instance is the compassion fatigue that the media responds to, because the media, which is really part -- Most of the media's part of the larger entertainment industry. They want to turn a profit. They have to prevent their audience from turning the page. They have to prevent their audience from hitting the remote. So they do everything they can to prevent us from falling into compassion fatigue. So they skip from crisis to crisis, so they sensationalize the news, so they play up the American angle, for example.
TERENCE SMITH: And the result of all this, as far as the public is concerned, I take it then is that they feel just another crisis, be it in Africa or Bangladesh or wherever?
SUSAN MOELLER: Right. I think the public is given short shrift. They never really learn enough about a crisis to care about it. And I think, you know, if you're going to the care about something, or if you're going to send your money, if you're going to put in your time, you have to know quite a bit about it, and that means not just hearing about it for two days or three days, at most a week, but for really sitting on the story for a while, and then even more importantly, coming back to it.
TERENCE SMITH: Revisiting it?
SUSAN MOELLER: Mm-hmm.
TERENCE SMITH: Barrie Dunsmore, does that sound familiar to you as somebody who's fought these battles?
DUNSMORE: It certainly does, although I am reminded of an old song that
the Kingston Trio sang many, many moons ago, which you may remember,
you and I being about the same age, "They're rioting in Africa."
I mean, I there is that kind of sense.
TERENCE SMITH: Susan Moeller, is that any form of isolationism at work there, in terms of public attitudes?
SUSAN MOELLER: I think it's more chauvinism, because you see it not just in the United States. You see it in England, you see it in France. I was in England the day that the tourists were rescued in Rwanda -- the guerrilla gorilla story. And the London papers were playing it up -- the commonwealth -- tourists who had been saved. And then I landed in New York that same day, and of course the New York papers are playing up the American angle. I don't think it's unique to us. I think it's really more a reflection of -- what do we care about? We care about our own. We care about our own soldiers, we care about countries where we have commercial interests, we care about places that we might visit as tourists.
|Combating compassion fatigue|
TERENCE SMITH: Joelle Tanguy, if you are successful with this, and there is as a result more coverage of some of these under-covered stories, what will be the result from your point of view, to get over this compassion fatigue?
JOELLE TANGUY: More awareness, more true understanding, and somehow a real healthy public debate, both here and around the world about the fate of populations in danger. I think that what we've seen is that wherever we're not bearing witness, wherever we have been the sole witness of situations of dramatic proportions when it comes to violence against civilians, if we don't speak up, there will be no effect. We have that guaranteed. We have no guarantee as what will be the final effect of kind of building a public awareness around the world of the fate of civilians here and there, but at least we have heightened the chances that we have a significant impact on their fate.
TERENCE SMITH: Final word, Susan Moeller? Is there some prospect, any prospect, of change here?
SUSAN MOELLER: Well, I think for the public, no news is not good news. No news means a country's in oblivion. And I think if there's hope for the future, it's that we're going to get more news from more places and maybe the Internet will play a role.
TERENCE SMITH: OK. Thank you very much. Joelle Tanguy, Barrie Dunsmore, thank you Susan Moeller very much.
SUSAN MOELLER: Thank you.
The NewsHour Media Unit, including this site, is funded by grants from: