News Without Borders

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Two lists just released give crucial insight into the news business. One is the survey that veteran media analyst and B&C contributing editor Andrew Tyndall took of the top 20 stories covered by the broadcast-network evening newscasts last year.

It was no surprise that coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath dominated broadcast news and that the Iraq War was right behind.

But what was a refreshing change from years past was that nowhere in the top 20 was there any of the trivial or sensational—Martha Stewart’s travails, the latest scandal involving a Jackson or the British royal family—which too often takes precedence over news that matters.

Still, while there is reason to applaud the return of these flagship newscasts to more substance, especially as their morning-show brethren and the so-called newsmagazines (with the exception of 60 Minutes) go deeper into infotainment, there remains room for improvement.

Let’s hope ABC World News Tonight, with new co-anchors Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas; CBS Evening News, in transition with Bob Schieffer and a new executive producer; and NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams (who has made coverage of Katrina’s aftermath a personal crusade) continue to eschew the silly for the serious this year, too.

While the network nightly newscasts deserve kudos, there still remains much of grave importance that gets scant coverage there, or anywhere else, for that matter. And that bring us to the second list: The Doctors Without Borders Top 10 Most Underreported Humanitarian Stories (see box below).

“American news organizations have been paying more attention to stories overseas than in the past, and not just the ones you would expect, like the war in Iraq or conflicts in other part of the Middle East—the earthquake in Pakistan, for example,” says Nicholas de Torrente, executive director of the group (which is also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres). “But there’s still so much that’s neglected.”

De Torrente’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization has released the list for eight years. I’ve been covering it for the last five, and, sadly, several of these tragic situations continue to show up on it, from the war- and diseased-ravaged Congo to the political and drug wars that have displaced millions of people in Colombia. There are also new tragedies on the list, including violence-ridden Haiti, where poverty is epidemic.

Still, de Torrente is not without hope. The migration of TV news organizations to the Web and beyond means more voices will be heard. International outfits like the BBC have increased their reach, and that makes a palpable difference.

“We saw what impact it had in 2005 when the BBC jumped on the story of the epidemic starvation in Niger, then aid started to pour in,” says de Torrente. “As late as the government response to Katrina was, how much worse would it have been if the media wasn’t there? People need to see what’s going on, then they know where help is needed.”

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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