Let’s Report More, Take Credit Less

Journalists love thinking that they can save lives. What could be more purifying, more self-affirming, after days spent wading in muck and sensation, than the feeling that, like doctors, you too can stave off death?

When a skeletal, dying African baby appears on the front page, we are being told to look, to not ignore the horror. But a more subliminal message is also sent: What a morally responsible newspaper we are, doing our job, fulfilling our traditional role of shedding light into the darkest corners.

During the recent crisis in Niger — a famine caused by a locust plague and compounded by a particularly harsh drought — the press spared no time in patting itself on the back. If not for the media’s attention, many journalists reported, the world would have been blind to this famine. The necessary aid that flowed in was a direct result of the images broadcast out. Otherwise, many more would have died.

And they’re right. On May 19, when the UN asked for $16.2 million to help stop the coming crisis, there was, as Jan Englund, the UN emergency relief coordinator put it, “near-deafening silence.” Until the camera crews started arriving in Niger in late July, Englund had managed to scrap together just $3.6 million (and, typically, mostly from Scandinavian countries). Only once those dying children made the front page did the money came pouring in: $73.1 million committed to date.

But there is something perverse about the self-congratulation. Permit us a moment of apostasy: If the press arrived only after children began dying en masse, doesn’t that mean that in some fundamental way it failed?

Let’s take a step back.

Niger warned in November of last year that the massive locust invasion then ravaging the country was going to create serious problems come harvest time. No one reported on this.

Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam tried to bring attention to the growing problem in April, once it was clear something like a famine was going to take place. Once again, no coverage, and nothing happened.

And then, in May, the UN asked donors for that relatively measly $16.1 million. The press’s response: not a peep.

When the media finally arrived at the story, it was in the most bumbling way, almost as a fluke. In early July, Kevin Bakhurst, editor of the BBC’s “Ten O’Clock News,” was sifting through photos to accompany a segment on the Live 8 concerts, the glitzy benefit shows meant to bring attention to issues in Africa. One photo, of sickly children, disturbed him in particular. Its caption said, simply, “feeding centre, Niger.”

He asked Hilary Andersson, the BBC’s Africa correspondent to check it out. When she arrived in Maradi, in southern Niger, she was the only journalist for hundreds of miles. She found starvation conditions much worse, she said, then those she had previously seen in Malawi in 2002 or even Darfur last year.

As soon as the images were broadcast on the BBC in mid-July, money began flowing in. But not just that. Editors everywhere were booking flights for their reporters to Niger. As Andersson wrote on the BBC website, “We will never know exactly what part we played in all of this but we were the only television crew there. By the time our team left Maradi, our hotel was so full of journalists and aid workers that there were no rooms left at the inn.”

What followed was so predictable it almost doesn’t bear repeating. An intense focus on the feeding centers in southern Niger; a few personal stories of mothers who had lost their children; angry editorials; opinion pieces blaming the ineptitude of the aid system.

And then, last week — about two weeks after the story broke — it disappeared, just as suddenly as it had appeared.

To some extent, this was justified. The grain and vitamin-rich snacks arrived and the media felt its job was done. But, as the New York Times reported, “as the ranks of the starving have increased, the price of addressing the problem has also risen, and OCHA [Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at the UN] needs $81 million. By failing to respond to the May appeal, the world now needs $65 million more to fix it.”

In addition, besides arriving late on the scene, journalists, by focusing almost randomly only on Niger, missed the fact that the famine was not so localized. The same deadly combination of locusts and drought was causing hunger all over the Sahel: in Mali, Mauritania, Burkino Faso.

The Times was one of the very few papers to capture this reality, in a small article that appeared on August 12, headlined, “Niger is in the Headlines, but Other African Lands Suffer, Too.” It quoted Ashley Tsongas, an advisor for Oxfam, who pointed out that the focus on Niger was “arbitrary, which is disturbing … It’s largely up to which [country] the media eye is going to fall on this year, and it shouldn’t be that chancy.”

The Times article noted, “It’s relatively easy to get permission to enter [Niger], unlike Sudan and Zimbabwe. It is at peace, and thus its emergency is not one induced by war, civil unrest or political machination. Its latest woes are still new.” Tsongas also told the paper, “[Niger] hasn’t been around for the last two years in the same way as, say, Ethiopia, where there’s definitely a feeling among donors of, ‘Oh, Ethiopia again.’”

The Independent’s Kim Sengupta also offered a wider angle in his pieces from the region, such as an article headlined, “Niger’s Agony Spreads Across the Arid Sahel,” in which he gave some sense of the numbers involved. Although 2.5 million people were in critical need in Niger, 2.2 million people were also affected by the crisis in Mali, and half a million Mauritania.

But these were exceptions. Mostly the story was treated simply as the suffering of the Nigerian children.

And with the exception of a few skimpy analysis pieces, no one stopped to explore the bigger and deeper sources of the crisis. To name a few of the most obvious: the reliance on subsistence farming all over the continent; the spread of barren desert across the Sahel; misbegotten Nigerian economic policies that exacerbated an already bad situation (on this issue, a notable exception, also from the Brits, was a Guardian story headlined, “Plenty of Food — Yet the Poor Are Starving: The Two Faces of Niger”).

We fear that more solid journalism examining these problems will have to wait until the next batch of starving babies hit the front page.

It might not even be too long.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.