Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Somali problems

The fact that starvation in Somalia is in the news again today is shameful.

But it is also an indictment of the way news is reported.

Some time ago I worked for Save the Children. We helped run a computer programme which did something called Riskmapping. Basically it was a pretty sophisticated way of predicting where there would be areas of food pressure or famine. It had all sorts of data in it, including material about coping strategies in different regions etc.

Because of this, and because of anecdotal reports from staff in the field, it was often possible to publish or broadcast warnings. Obviously these all went to various international and national bodes, but we would also want to get this information into the news media as that can often be a way of raising the issue and the money to avoid catastrophe.

My experience when trying to do this was two fold.

Firstly, if any other African country had been in the news recently, editors would use that as a reason not to cover the warning story. When you think how big the continent is.. and the fact that the other story may well have been nothing to do with food security (south african politics for example) its a pretty poor reason.

But, and more shamefully, the reply we often got was that the story couldn't be covered yet because the famine hadn't started! Given that we were trying to do something to prevent it, that is a particularly annoying thing to hear. The sad fact is that if you don't have pictures of very thin people, or mass migration.. or you don't have babies crying from hunger, it is hard to get the coverage. And so that potential element of the early warning is lost.

Now I realise that a story saying famine can be averted, or at least ameliorated if x or y is done is not as compelling as one about actual starvation. But maybe every now and then we ought to sacrifice the most "compelling" story decision for one that will make a difference.

Just a thought.

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