Howard French asks about some thought provoking questions on the recent report on rape statistics in the Congo about how the Congo is constructed in the media and our rather limp global response to the ongoing war which has killed well over five million people to date. I think it's interesting to consider French's critique alongside this extract on the Congo from a longer, interesting piece about the lack of media attention to the protests in Burkina Faso recently published in Pambazuka:
The Guardian's 2010 list of most tagged countries confirms to some extent that history of familiarity with a place guarantees coverage. Egypt, South Africa and Zimbabwe got tagged more times than the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Sudan. Possibly because of its hosting of the World Cup, South Africa had 547 tags, outranking earthquake-stricken Haiti, which had 436 tags. Egypt had 219, while Zimbabwe had 144 tags, and yet the DRC had a paltry 124 tags, Sudan had 122 and Somalia even less at 113. All three are among the most unstable African countries of 2010 and yet they ranked lower than the World Cup host South Africa. The war-stricken Congo is one of the world's suppliers of raw materials for mobile and computer technology and ironically constitutes just over a fifth of the 604 articles on Apple. This is not a criticism of the Guardian as the paper does provide some of the best and insightful international news coverage, but these tags are unfortunately a skewed quantitative reflection of coverage patterns and the consumerist nature of public interest.
Saying this with all flippancy intended, the formula is simple. Reports of anti-British and homophobic comments by the African dictator everyone loves to hate, and shark attacks in Sharm el-Sheik make catchy headlines. Never-ending sagas of jungle wars and mass rapes, unless involving powerful countries, do not. Or unless they're packaged as humanitarian causes fronted by celebrities and award-winning journalists like George Clooney and Nicholas Kristof. Their combined interest in the Save Darfur campaign, malaria awareness and referendum for north–south separation ensured Sudan received frequent coverage in the New York Times. Unfortunately, no similar twin-set of movie star and scribe of Clooney's and Kristof's stature have permanently adopted the DR Congo or Somalia as their primary cause. Although one of the aims of international news is to appeal to as broad a global audience as possible, how broad is our interest and genuine our humanity as people if we suffer war and compassion fatigue towards stories on the DRC, Somalia and Sudan?
But now with all these revolutions and uprisings going on, places like the DR Congo are a distant tragedy. Despite the exceedingly valuable coverage of the uprisings by some news networks, there is an underlying sense of competition within the media to see who can land the best, exclusive interview or provide the most comprehensive coverage. In the face of such fierce competition, taking a few moments in between protest broadcasts to ask the world to remember the 5.4 million (and rising) Congolese dead since 1998 or to take a serious look at Compaoré's megalomanic scheming in Burkina Faso wouldn't be a suicidal gamble with the ratings. Events in Africa and the Middle East shouldn't be placed in competition with each other; what's happening in Nigeria, Syria or Libya can share the spotlight with many other untold or under-reported stories. It’s a question of willingness to pluralise news stories and cover unfamiliar terrain.
Joy Dibenedetto, a broadcast executive and founder of alternative news site, Hum News, reports that in 2009 research conducted by Hum News found that there are 237 countries or territories in the world, and the world's largest news organisations report from only 121 countries or territories. Out of 237 global locations, 116 are not covered. If true, that's just under 50 per cent of the world's stories potentially out of mainstream media focus – almost 50 per cent. Allow that to sink in.