Neglected news, or just too hard to sell?

In 2006, the US media turned a blind eye to tuberculosis and malnutrition and to the effects of wars in several countries, says international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

In its annual report on the Top Ten Most Underreported Humanitarian Stories, MSF says Americans were not adequately informed about:

1. Somalis Trapped by War and Disaster
2. Fleeing Violence in the Central African Republic (CAR)
3. Increasing Human Toll Taken by Tuberculosis
4. Consequences of Bitter Conflict in Chechnya
5. Civilians Under Fire in Sri Lanka While Assistance is Limited
6. Effective Strategies for Treating Malnutrition Not Implemented
7. Congolese Endure Extreme Deprivation and Violence
8. Living in Fear in Colombia
9. Violence Rages in Haiti’s Volatile Capital
10. Clashes in Central India

The MSF report is based on minutes of airtime provided by the United States’ traditional big three television networks (whose audience share continues to decline due to the growth of cable networks and the internet) and does not appear to include radio, print or online media.

I suspect most editors will recognise the above stories as worthy of coverage. The problem is: who is going to read, listen, or watch? Unless these stories can be told in a highly compelling way, they have no chance of making the cut against sport, local crime, or Britney.

Furthermore, media attention does not guarantee a political response, as MSF itself acknowledges:

While the conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan and in eastern Chad garnered significant media attention in 2006, the steady focus did not translate into improved conditions for people caught up in the conflict. “Even though there was more reporting about Darfur than about other crises, the situation continued to deteriorate to the point where MSF and other aid groups had to scale back their programs,” said [MSF Executive Director Nicolas] de Torrenté.

With a bit more effort from journalists, the ten issues listed above should provide ample material to mould into eye-catching copy that might, just occasionally, shoulder aside the usual fare to gain prominence in news reports. De Torrenté says that would help.

“We know that media coverage does not generate improvements on its own. However, it is often a precondition for increased assistance and political attention. There is perhaps nothing worse than being completely neglected and forgotten.”