Information Warfare: January 28, 2004


: NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) are complaining that the mass media didn't cover some major humanitarian stories last year. The NGOs, whose business (it is a business, the largely altruistic aid workers get paid, and supporting them in the field is expensive) is bringing relief to international hot sport, believe people are interested in these largely ignored disasters. The NGOs assert that the mass media slights these situations because of the high expense (and danger) of sending journalists in, and because the media believe most people don't care. The NGOs are wrong about the general interest in these situation. Web sites can easily measure each item posted, including how many times someone clicked on that item and how long they spent with it. StrategyPage, for example, has an international audience, including many people in the military and government. Despite that, few people read our coverage of the wars NGOs believe people are interested in. TV news programs are able to get second by second ratings for their on-air stories, and they see the same dismal results we do. Moreover, there's one very important fact-of-life the American media understand very well; if a foreign story doesn't somehow involve Americans, Americans won't pay attention to it. 

According to the NGOs, the ten most underreported humanitarian stories of 2003 were (with likely reasons why they were ignored): 

The refugee crisis in Chad. Yet another rebellion in neighboring Sudan has sent nearly a hundred thousand refugees into Chad. The refugees are stuck in the middle of nowhere, with little water, less food and no shelter. Lots of misery and death. But there's so much of this coming out of Africa (now, and for over a decade) that it isn't news anymore. People consider this tragic state of affairs as "normal" for Africa.

Unrest in Chechnya. One reason there's been a war in Chechnya for the last four years is the large number of Chechen kidnapping gangs that were operating throughout the Caucasus. That's one of many reasons the Russian army came in. Journalists are seen as particularly worth snatching, because their employers will usually pay a hefty ransom, and you get to keep all those neat gadgets journalists carry around with them. Moreover, car bombs, ambushes and land mines make getting around a dangerous undertaking in itself. 

Fighting in Burundi. It's another African war. And all of these conflicts feature trigger happy teenagers with AK-47s. The kids are often high on drugs or booze, which makes them even more dangerous. And most are illiterate, which means they can't read press credentials. 

Civil wars in Colombia. This is the kidnapping capital of the world. Even Colombian journalists don't cover a lot of the action. And if some of the gunmen don't like what you are doing, they don't ask you to stop, they just shoot you. Besides, the violence has been going on for over half a century. It's really old news.

Civil Wars in Congo. Like Burundi, but on a larger scale. Most of the dead are civilians driven into the bush, where they die of starvation or disease. For whatever reason, people will go out of their way to look at a car wreck, but not for this.

Malaria. This disease has been the biggest killer on the planet for centuries. It was pretty much wiped out in the United States over half a century ago. Since Americans are not affected, it's not news in the USA. 

Unrest in Somalia. Sort of a tropical Chechnya. But at least the Chechens have gotten a local government going and are working out their problems. In Somalia, it's still armed anarchy. Not a healthy place for reporters (or even passing ships, as Somalis have taken to piracy as well.) 

North Korean political repression and chronic food shortages. North Korea does not believe in press freedoms. If a reporter could get into the country, getting caught would mean getting charged with spying and disappearing into a prison camp. And you would get caught. This place is the ultimate police state. Lots of great stories here, but there aren't enough suicidal journalists to send in to attempt reporting what's there.

Trade agreements threatening access to medicines. Stories about greedy drug companies ripping off all and sundry always make for good stories. But when you get into the international aspects of the drug business (patents, currency risk, local marketing conditions and international relations), it gets really complicated. News organizations don't like complicated stories, because they are a hard sell. If people won't pay attention to a story, the media will stop reporting it.

Ivory Coast civil war. Another African war. Not as bloody as some of the others, but with the same mix of ethnic strife, corruption and senseless violence. Stories like this just cant compete with celebrity scandals and natural disasters.

Another story not reported, one that the NGOs are not complaining about, is how the NGOs work the media to run there own private international diplomacy. The NGOs have become a powerful force in the diplomatic arena. But the media is on to these scams (NGOs play up some humanitarian disaster, demand peacekeepers, and then feed the gunmen along with the refugees) and aren't as ready to jump as they once were.


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