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Foreign news, what fore foreign news?: Compassion Fatigue. By Prof Susan Moeller. Published by Routledge (New York and London). (Book Review).

This book, subtitled, "How the Media Sell Disease, Famine and Death", could easily have been subtitled: "I Accuse the Media," for it is nothing less than an accusing finger at the American media for the way they have made Americans to become less and less responsive to foreign disaster stories, which is the opposite of what the same Americans now want the world to do after the 11 September attacks.

While the American media continue to claim that their readers and viewers are not interested in the more analytical background information about the causes of foreign disasters, it would seem that the media themselves show less and less concern about the suffering they witness around the world and, thus, give it superficial coverage.

The Chicago Tribune, says Prof Susan Moeller, led a 1990 article about Americans' lack of interest in foreign news coverage with this anecdote:

"At a gathering of Third World visitors here [in Washington DC] recently, an African stood to ask a question of columnist James J. Kilpatrick. 'Why is it that American journalists don't care about my country?', the African asked.

'What country do you come from, sir?' Kilpatrick responded. 'Uganda', the man answered. 'Why the hell should I care about Uganda?', said Kilpatrick, as diplomats around the room wheezed and struggled to catch their breath."

Kilpatrick probably intended this remark as a shock therapy for Africans who naively insist on unconditional concern by Americans about African affairs,

"Compassion fatigue," writes Prof Moeller, "is the acknowledged cause of much of the failure of international reporting today. It is at the base of many of the complaints about the public's short attention span, the media's peripatetic journalism, the public's boredom with international news, and the media's preoccupation with crisis coverage."

Shocking pictures of cholera or genocide victims, which would not have passed for news 20 years ago, says the author, are now front-page items. But once a situation is reported, it is quickly abandoned because "that's old news", even though the suffering has not lessened.

Journalists in the field have to run from disaster to disaster, searching for worse and worse situations, no matter how risky it may be. Expectations from desk editors force reporters to paint a worse picture than the situation actually is. So, more and more journalists are getting themselves shot at the war front while in pursuit of horror stories and shocking pictures.

Hollywood's influence has seen to it that all war reports follow the "good and bad guys" formula.

Reports of disease outbreaks must "appear to be out of a Stephen King horror movie," -- like "flesh-eating bacteria, consumes your brain like mad cow disease, or turns your insides to bloody slush like Ebola" -- to be worth mentioning in print or on air.

For profit

The profit motive also comes under scrutiny. The American media claim that purely foreign crisis stories (no American involved) sells poorly in the USA. A recent exception was the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

A leading American journalist is quoted as saying: "The death of 'the people's princess' is the ideal story, born in fantasy and ending abruptly in brutal fact. Treating the [Diana] story as news wasn't the problem. It was news. Big news. Big, money-making news. It would be childish to be shocked to find that the media made a lot of money off Diana's death."

Incidentally, the author points out, Mother Teresa, the saint of Calcutta, died the same week as Diana. The American news network devoted only 16 minutes in total that week to Mother Teresa's death while Diana got nearly 200 minutes.

The power of the market, in guiding editorial policy decisions of the US media, is clearly illustrated in this book. It follows that if Americans were directly involved or a lot of money were to be made by the media out of the Congolese or Sudanese wars, for example, those wars would never get off the headlines. Humaniry counts for little, if at all.

All this would not matter so much, it could even be amusing, if the media were not so influential in the way US foreign policy relates to the rest of the world.

Richard Perle, the former US assistant defence secretary, is quoted as saying: "TV has become the new diplomat in foreign affairs. Embassies are behind the curve. While sitting in the bubble, in a secure room in some embassy trying to figure out what to advise, the people in Washington may have made up their minds watching television.

The book contains many examples of instances to show that the media -- television in particular -- influence America's actions in foreign countries. In behaving this way, Prof Moeller says, "the media abdicate responsibility in the forum where they are privileged with the greatest access and the most information.

"They could, and should, arrest the decline in both media coverage and audience interest. They need to address the causes of compassion fatigue, [because] compassion fatigue and, even more clearly, compassion avoidance are signals that the coverage of international affairs must change."
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Author:Akol, Jacob
Publication:New African
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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