How the tsunami hogged the headlines

The Asian tsunami attracted more media attention in the first six weeks after it struck than the world's top 10 "forgotten" emergencies did over a whole year, according to a report from Reuters.
Other emergencies -- from the devastating wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan to HIV/Aids -- have been neglected by world's media, said a new survey from the information group's humanitarian news site Reuters AlertNet, which analysed coverage in 200 English-language newspapers.

The survey comes just a day after research showed that malaria had become the world's forgotten killer, with half a billion people suffering from the disease but drawing a fraction of the attention of "new" killers such as HIV/Aids.

The tsunami, which killed an estimated 300 000 people, has squeezed the already low levels of press coverage of other emergencies, receiving 34 992 citations in the press to the end of February.

But in the full year up to then, the next most covered emergency -- the conflict in Sudan -- generated just a fifth of the tsunami's coverage, with 7 661 mentions.

And the war in the DRC, in which nearly 4-million people have been killed, has "hardly registered" in the worldwide media, said Reuters, with 3 119 articles across the year.

The other crises "most neglected" by the media, chosen by 100 humanitarian relief professionals, are: Uganda, HIV/Aids, west Africa, Colombia, Chechnya, Nepal, Haiti and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, which kills 2-million people a year and makes 9-million ill, according to charity TB Alert.

The challenge of distilling a complex crisis down to simple soundbites -- and finding a thread of hope to help audiences empathise -- are among the reasons that some emergencies are "forgotten", say the humanitarian workers who were surveyed.

"[A tsunami is] simpler, visual and more dramatic, in ways that both drought and
conflict aren't," said Paul Harvey of the British thinktank, the Humanitarian Policy Group.

"The story is always the same," said Lindsey Hilsum, the international editor
of Channel 4 TV news. "It induces despair. It's expensive and dangerous, and one
feels that there are no solutions and no end to it all."

And the TB Alert chairperson, Paul Sommerfeld, added: "While it is natural to
focus on dramatic events like the tsunami, it is sad that we forget issues like
tuberculosis which in sheer numbers of deaths equals 10 great tsunamis every

Newsdesks struggle with drawn-out crises Long-running humanitarian crises are often difficult to package as fresh-sounding stories, while logistical problems and tight budgets could also
put news editors off committing reporters and resources to cover the stories.

In countries such as Zimbabwe and Sudan, governments routinely refuse to give
journalists visas, while reporting in the DRC can mean trekking through the
jungle for a story unlikely to make the front page.

"If you had a similar natural disaster [to the tsunami] in Africa three months
from now, I don't think you'd have the same media coverage [or] the same
consequences, because it's only maybe once a year that the western public is
willing to be moved by disasters on that level," said Gorm Rye Olsen, a
researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies.

In the meantime, stories of geopolitical importance such as Middle East turmoil
and "the war on terror" hog what's left of the international news agenda.

"The world's obsession with Iraq has pushed to the margins many other scenes of
mass violence," said Gareth Evans, the head of the Brussels-based International
Crisis Group thinktank.

Without TV time, aid experts say the general public is unlikely to donate in
large quantities, as they did after the tsunami when individual donations to
charities outpaced initial offers from governments, leaving them rushing to
catch up.

"The media is a huge factor in getting people to be generous," said, Oxfam Great
Britain's humanitarian funding manager, Orla Quinlan. "If they're visually engaged, that brings it home and makes it real to them." -

 Guardian Unlimited © 11 March 2005 02:16
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005