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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2339

Ten Stories That Desperately Need to be Told

By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

United Nations, 16 May , (IPS): Every year, the U.N.'s Department of Public Information (DPI) unveils its list of the world's 10 most under-reported stories, implying that politics, murder and sex scandals still take precedence over poverty, peace-building or economic development.

The list, released by the United Nations Monday, covers a wide range of stories -- from the plight of asylum seekers and refugees in ongoing conflicts to earthquake relief and post-war reconstruction -- that received little or no play in the world media.

"We all know that violence and conflict, and the threat thereof, always seem to make the headlines -- 'if it bleeds it leads', while 'good news is no news'," says Shashi Tharoor, U.N. under-secretary-general for communications and public information.

"We've tried over the years to show that development issues can make good stories too -- by pointing out the human interest aspects, and by helping demonstrate that such stories can be made 'readable', 'watchable' and interesting," Tharoor told IPS.

"We'll continue doing our best, but unless readers, viewers and listeners don't also let editors know that they'd like to see more of such stories (especially by offering overwhelming positive feedback when such stories do appear), it may remain difficult to persuade the media guardians that such material really has appeal to the audience," said Tharoor, who launched the initiative in 2004.

Asked why the mainstream media and major international news agencies still continue to focus primarily on political issues and pay increasingly less attention to development-oriented issues, Tharoor flipped the question back to the reporter: "This is a question for journalists and editors to answer!"

According to the DPI, headed by Tharoor, the ten stories the world should hear more about include post-war reconstruction in Liberia; the new challenges faced by bona fide asylum seekers; the upcoming historic elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo; children caught in the ongoing conflict in Nepal; and the compounding effects of a drought threatening to undermine stability in war-devastated Somalia.

The list also singles out several other stories under-reported by the world media: the plight of millions of refugees living in limbo; the problems of relief efforts in the aftermath of the South Asian earthquake and tsunami; the alarming number of children in conflict with the law; the collaborative solutions that have prevented conflicts over scarce water resources; and renewed violence that threatens to undermine the peace process in Cote d'Ivoire.

Ernest Corea, a former newspaper editor in Sri Lanka and that country's one-time ambassador to the United States, says the media (of all varieties) in industrialised countries focus on issues such as Iraq, Iran, nuclear proliferation etc., because these are of primary interest to their readers, viewers or listeners.

"These media are also influenced by a culture of conflict," Corea told IPS. "A good fight, of any kind, therefore makes news -- sometimes even before the fight takes place."

"Thus, the run-up to the election of a bishop in California hit the headlines because three gay and lesbian candidates were in contention. Not one of them was elected. End of story."

By contrast, Corea pointed out, development-oriented issues are of primary interest to readers/listeners/viewers in developing countries.

In fairness, however, when some of the world's major newspapers do cover development-oriented issues, they do so with understanding and skill, said Corea, currently a consultant to an international financial institution in Washington.

Over the years, several international efforts to set up news agencies or news feature services focusing on developing countries -- including the Non-Aligned News Agency Pool, Gemini News Service and Depth News -- have failed to get off the ground.

Were they too political and less professional? Or were they too resource-poor to compete with Western giants?

"All of the above," said Tharoor. "There was a legitimate fear that such agencies would exist to peddle a governmental view, paid for with governmental money, as an alternative to 'unwelcome' free media, at a time when free media had legitimate questions about the message being put out by the governments concerned," he added.

"And of course, despite some governmental backing, they were woefully under-resourced, and what they produced could not compete credibly in the media marketplace," Tharoor said.

Corea had a different take on it. He said that all of the earlier efforts, though different from each other, were afflicted by a common problem: lack of support from developing country media.

"Gemini and Depth News were features services, not news agencies. Gemini features were highly professional products and its founder, Derek Ingram, tried valiantly to keep it going but he simply did not have a sufficient number of paying clients," Corea added.

Early this year, Malaysia, in its capacity as chairman of the 114-member Non-Aligned Movement, embarked on the creation of a Non-Aligned News Network (NNN).

Asked whether this can be one answer to the current problem, Tharoor said: "It could well be, because I understand it is based on a model of open-exchange of information rather than control of information, and is open to postings from freelance journalists as well as national news-agency correspondents".

If that is so, said Tharoor, it will be seen as adding to the valuable sources of information rather than restricting them. "I look forward to seeing it in operation."

Corea said: "Malaysia's initiative will have a good chance of success if (a) the new agency has strong financial support and (b) the agency is professionally run."

Currently, most developing nations are also poorly represented in the U.N. press corps -- perhaps because most third world countries or their national news agencies cannot afford to post full-time correspondents in New York.

Asked what the United Nations can do to rectify this, Tharoor said: "Nothing, alas." If the United Nations were to try to ease the financial burden on developing country journalists by offering any sort of subsidy, he said, "We would be rightly accused of trying to buy influence with the press corps."

"We can guarantee that if a credentialed developing country journalist comes to the United Nations, we will extend all the facilities and co-operation we can, so that he or she can pursue their profession with the minimum possible handicaps in terms of workspace, access, etc. I don't believe the developing country journalists who are already here have many complaints on that score," he added.

Corea said: "Seeking U.N. assistance to resolve this problem is precisely the wrong way to go." He said that collaborative arrangements among developing country newspapers, etc., can go part of the way towards resolving the problem.

"Developing country media can also opt to support and give more space/air time to Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, which is very active at the United Nations," he said.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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