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U.S.: How Humanitarian Crises Evade TV Cameras

  • Julie Corwin

No one wants to hear about Chechen refugees (CTK) What does it take to attract the attention of U.S. television news cameras? Hundreds -- if not thousands -- of unnecessary deaths, large-scale movement of refugees, and/or senseless violence and mayhem provide no guarantee. Last week, Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian group, issued its eighth annual list of the top 10 underreported humanitarian stories of 2005. Included were stories such as the conflict in Chechnya, violence in Haiti, and the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


WASHINGTON, 18 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- While U.S. network nightly news programs all but ignore certain stories, such as Chechnya, they are covering more international news than 10 years ago.


"It was actually a very heavy year for the international beat. Twenty percent of the entire news hole was international stories, so over 3,000 minutes. And that was the heaviest year of international coverage since 1994. It was the heaviest in 12 years," said Andrew Tyndall, the publisher of the online journal "The Tyndall Report," which monitors the three major television networks' news broadcasts.

"When you have a war situation, it's more complicated to understand what's going on but also you have this sense that there are lot of shades of gray rather than a clear black-and-white picture. And that makes reporting more difficult."

What were viewers seeing? The after-effects of the tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and the earthquake in Pakistan. Natural disasters, according to Tyndall, are more likely to be covered than disasters that are man-made, such as civil wars.


"We're talking about television news now. There’s one thing about natural disasters [and that] is that they have very vivid pictures. It's much, much more suited to that medium than say newspaper coverage," Tyndall said.


Natural disasters are also easier to report than conflicts where access may be difficult. "I think it is easier to -- for the media to cover natural disasters and also for the general public to immediately empathize with victims of a natural disaster because it is natural, because it is external, the causes are sudden and unexpected and people are all kind of blameless and affected by this outside force," said Nicholas de Torrente, executive director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States.


"It is easier. The victims are, in a way, pure," he continued. "When you have a war situation, it's more complicated to understand what's going on but also you have this sense that there are lot of shades of gray rather than a clear black-and-white picture. And that makes reporting more difficult."


According to de Torrente, TV news executives say they ignore certain stories because of lack of interest from their audience. "One of the largest explanations that is always given is that there is no audience for these kinds of stories for the plight of people in the Congo, for instance, who are suffering [in] an ongoing war, or in southern Sudan, or in Chechnya," he said. "American people, or people in wealthy countries in general, are just not interested in these stories."


Doctors Without Borders lists the 10 most under-reported stories in 2005 as the humanitarian crises in Chechnya, Uganda, India, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Somalia, Haiti, and over HIV/AIDS tools.


Compared to the 1970s -- when as much as two-thirds of a television evening news broadcast could be devoted to foreign news -- coverage of international stories today has plummeted. One reason is cost of coverage.


In a May 2002 study, the U.S.-based Project for Excellence for Journalism disputed the notion that television news got "lighter" because viewers stopped being interested in "hard" news. Instead, the study says, the content changed because the corporations that were now running the television networks wanted to devote less budget money to producing the news.


According to the study, as a result of budget and staff cuts, TV networks must "jump from crisis to crisis, parachuting in reporters, producers, and photographers." Meanwhile, stories that are "medium-sized" and require more sustained attention suffer.


What are the American people interested in? Not Chechnya -- at least, judging by network news executives’ decisions. Last year, according to Tyndall, the three U.S. networks together devoted only two minutes of the entire year's coverage to Chechnya compared with 169 minutes about the case of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead woman in Florida whose family was locked in a legal dispute about whether to remove her feeding tube.


When television does decide to cover a story, a tsunami of money can pour in. According to de Torrente, a single TV story broadcast on the BBC last July on famine in Niger led to an outpouring of assistance. In addition, other television networks, including CNN, finally decided to cover the story.


"I think this year we had one very pure example of how media attention can spur action on the part of aid organizations and donors in response to crises," de Torrente said. "And that is what happened in Niger, which was a huge nutritional crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of children. That was completely ignored until the media did a report. There was a TV report in July. And you can really trace the increase of aid and the beginning of a real aid response to that TV report and the media attention that followed."


De Torrente said he and his colleagues would prefer that international assistance money was distributed according to need rather than fluctuating media attention. Still, he said, any kind of media attention is better than silence.

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