At the weekend, two young parents gave an interview on television, in which they implied that all is not well in one of history’s most privileged families. Every commentator in the land then had their say, either agreeing and sympathising, or leaping to the defence of the royal family. The column inches generated by this event are formidable. Today I counted 42 articles on the Daily Express homepage alone, and gave up at 53 halfway down the Daily Mail homepage.
There are multiple levels of reporting – first what was said in the interview, then what the former butler or shock-jock TV presenter said about it, and then what other people thought about their response. This will carry on for days, often spiralling into unedifying tangles of racism and nationalism. But the most important thing will be clicks, eyeballs on screens, and profits for the news companies.
Whether it ultimately has any significance or not, a big event can generate tens of thousands of articles across the global media, sometimes hundreds of thousands. By contrast, other news events get very little coverage at all. They happen far away, where there are few reporters, among people who – to put it bluntly – news audiences don’t care about.
Every year, the NGO Care International compiles a list of the ten most under-reported disasters of the year. Using media analysis tools, they compile figures on global news coverage and establish the world’s ‘blind spots’.
The most overlooked story in 2020 was Burundi, where floods and landslides came at the same time as COVID-19 and pressures from hosting refugees from the Congo. 2.3 million people need humanitarian aid, in what is the world’s 5th poorest country.
This story generated 429 media hits last year. If you think that doesn’t sound so very bad, bear in mind that this counts media hits across the whole world, over the whole the year. Most newspapers won’t have reported on it at all. I hadn’t heard about it, and even now I know it happened, it’s still very difficult to find any information on it. It’s happened almost entirely out of sight.
Of the ten most under-reported disasters in 2020, six of them were in Africa. Many of them are climate related, which means that there’s a justice question here. People in Burundi or Madagascar, which appears in this list for the second year in a row, have contributed almost nothing to the climate crisis. And yet when they suffer the effects of other countries’ emissions, the world doesn’t even notice.
This is a deep rooted problem. In a capitalist society, the media goes where the money is. And the reality is that African lives literally have no value to the newspapers. They don’t bring in the advertisers and generate clicks. Led by the algorithms that suggest stories based on what you’re already apparently interested in, the internet will serve you hundreds of articles on Meghan and Harry before it ever delivers a story from Africa, even if millions of people are affected.
Care International offer some recommendations, including investing in citizen journalism, better connections with local networks, and freedom of the press. They profile some journalists who are getting out there are covering these stories. Nevertheless, it’s going to be a long road to a better understanding of global climate effects, and the price that Africa is paying.
I could have picked another story. The royal family is just this week’s buzz story. I could have made the same point with the Manchester derby that was played this weekend (Africans who kick footballs in the Premiership are an exception and do have value). Against that 429 articles on Burundi, Care offer the 334,000 articles on the launch of the Playstation 5. But whatever example we choose, it should prompt us to consider who and what is valued by the news, where our attention is steered, and who is served by that attention.