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Under-Used Power of the News

Media coverage of the devastating tsunami in South Asia and the outpouring of aid spurred by images of the catastrophe is testament to the power of journalism. Sadly, however, the attention paid to that tragic event and its aftermath is the exception, not the rule, in TV news.

If you want proof, look below at Doctors Without Borders' list of the year's Top 10 Most Underreported Humanitarian Stories. In a host of African countries, North Korea, Colombia, Chechnya and elsewhere, lives are being cruelly cut short by a staggering array of woes, but we remain largely ill-informed about them. Last year, the Big Three nightly newscasts didn't air significant reports on any of these regions, save Chechnya and North Korea—and the latter drew attention because of its nuclear threat, not its humanitarian crisis. But they did devote plenty of attention to Martha Stewart and Janet Jackson.

“Too much time is still spent on the trivial, and virtually no time is spent on so much where the media could have an impact—the troubles in Africa or a disease like tuberculosis,” says Nicholas de Torrente, executive director of Doctors Without Borders [Medicins Sans Frontieres], the group that was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for its humanitarian works.

This is the seventh year Doctors Without Borders has produced its list. I first wrote about the list four years ago, when Taliban-wrecked Afghanistan was among the top 10. That was nine months before 9/11. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, news organizations did the requisite public soul-searching, the mea culpas, and made promises to do a better job covering the globe. Afghanistan no longer makes the list, but, damningly for the news industry, such countries as Somalia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are perennials. “Coverage of Africa is still bare-bones,” says Torrente. “This is the sixth year in a row Colombia is on the list.”

Talk to news executives and you hear a litany of justifications for the lack of attention paid to these troubled regions. All speak about the money and manpower drained from news operations by the Iraqi War. Couple that with coverage demanded by such hot spots as the Middle East, and precious few resources are left for anything else.

The rare TV newsmagazines that do occasionally report on these regions and issues—PBS' Frontline, CBS' 60 Minutes and ABC's Nightline—are hardly big money-makers. The conventional wisdom in the prime time news business is that the latest Michael Jackson scandal or sensational murder is what keeps the ratings high. No doubt that's true. And privately, some who hold the purse strings claim there's no ratings upside, so why spend the money necessary to cover the impact of civil wars in Africa or South America? But does this mean there's basically no room for stories that ultimately might help alleviate human suffering by shining a light on it for the world to see?

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Torrente. “No resources go into pursuing these important stories. People are rarely informed to begin with, so how could they be interested or care? But the media should learn the lesson from their coverage of the tsunami and put that same energy into all those areas that desperately need our attention.” Who knows, viewers might respond with the heartfelt compassion that has been on such inspiring display for the past month.