29 December 2011

The Challenge of Telling Global Stories

Sam Loewenberg, who has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, and Slate, among others, said he couldn’t garner interest in a story about the recent hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa, which this summer suffered the region’s most horrific drought in 60 years. Humanitarian alerts described it as the worst such disaster in the world with inadequate response efforts. Yet, Loewenberg said, “nobody cared.” 
“One news magazine said, ‘Oh, that could be interesting, but we’re going to have to meet with editors and see what the angle is and come up with an interesting approach to this.’” 
“Eight million people are going hungry and that hasn’t been reported anywhere,” Loewenberg replied. “What angle are you looking for, exactly?” 
Eventually, he sold the piece to The New York Times opinion page. But it was “a missed opportunity,” he said of the lack of media coverage. “Because there are a lot of things that can be done. But that’s the horrible result of the lack of press because it means the politicians don’t pay attention so the money doesn’t come.” 
Loewenberg pointed to the drastic downsizing of foreign bureaus over the past decade, saying, “now these stories aren’t getting covered. We can see how that directly affects funding … by putting stuff out there, we are affecting public policy.” 
Reading that makes me equally depressed and inspired. The article from the Global Post continues to describe how the challenge described by Lowenberg is particularly applicable to global health reporting.  Other journalists are quoted, but the core of the discussion is how hard it is to have stories like the HoA famine told.

How can the point arrive where Lowenberg can tell the story of the Horn of Africa at the moment of crisis?  More importantly, when can people living in the region begin to tell their own stories?  How can consumers make it clear that we want more of these stories to be told?  The blame cannot rest with media companies and journalists alone.  As Lowenberg showed, he was more than willing to report, but the story was not deemed important enough to publish.