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Children in war-torn Congo in 2004. (AP photo)

News judgment as a life or death matter

COMMENTARY | July 23, 2006

In some major catastrophes, news coverage brings financial aid which brings calls for peacekeeping forces, which bring humanitarian assistance teams, which bring more news coverage. No coverage (think Congo) means the absence of all the above.

By Morton Mintz

There's nothing new in the potential of governments (think wars, global warming) and corporations (think coal companies) to ordain whether people will suffer or die, sometimes in large or even massive numbers. But occasionally we get a needed reminder that the same potential resides in news judgments. A recent example concerns MSNBC and its parent NBC network; an antibiotic called Ketek, prescribed five million times since the FDA approved it in 2004, and TV interviews with a vulgar celebrity promoting a book.

On June 29, the Food and Drug Administration issued a strong warning that Ketek could rarely cause serious and even fatal liver injury in otherwise healthy patients. On July 19, the New York Times reported that 14 patients who took Ketek suffered liver failure, including four who died, and 23 more suffered serious liver injury. 

Although the FDA warning had the potential to be a lifesaver, neither NBC nor MSNBC relayed it to their millions of viewers, according to a search of their Web sites.  NBC's lists zero news mentions of Ketek; MSNBC's lists nine, but the latest preceded the warning by three weeks.

The book in question was released on June 6. By July 14, just 5 1/2 weeks later, MSNBC and NBC had aired at least five interviews with the writer, by the count of Media Matters. The ignored FDA warning came between the fourth and fifth interviews.

Coincidentally, only two days after the fifth interview, an article in the Washington Post's Sunday Outlook section described the consequences of noncoverage of immense issues of life and death, specifically in the war-ravaged Congo. The writers are officials of the International Rescue Committee, which conducted four mortality surveys in Congo between 2000 and 2004.

"[A]fter a decade of misery and death," Congo remains on  "the list of chronic humanitarian emergencies requiring extensive outside assistance," Dr. Richard Brennan, director of the IRC's Health Unit, and Anna Husarska, an IRC senior policy adviser, wrote. They called "the crisis in Congo the deadliest anywhere since the end of World War II, dwarfing Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur and even the South Asian tsunami." 

Following, with italics added, are connections Brennan and Husarska made with news coverage [Click here for the full article.]

"Ignorance of the calamity occurring in Congo remains almost universal, even though the numbers that reflect it – particularly the key indicator ‘excess mortality,’ the number of deaths above normal levels – are staggering....We found that in the most affected zones, the mortality rate over the years covered by our studies (1998 to 2004) exceeded the ‘normal’ rate for sub-Saharan Africa by nearly 4 million people....Yet for the most part, these deaths have gone all but unnoticed.

“In an era of instant news cycles, more attention is paid to those who die violently than to those who die of disease. In our most recent Congo survey, only 2 percent of the deaths were attributed to the simmering conflict there. The rest resulted from easily preventable and treatable diseases...Nearly half of the victims were younger than 5, but they still received almost no attention. The disappearance of 4 million Congolese was well-documented (our study was published in the British medical journal the Lancet), but it was viewed as unheroic, seemingly apolitical and therefore untelevisable.

“We investigated the way mortality triggered three types of response – humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and news coverage – and compared the results for Congo with other humanitarian disasters. In every category, despite its higher mortality, Congo received far less attention.

“Responses to a crisis such as Congo's are always linked. When there is media coverage, aid increases. Large donors may be more inclined to press for a greater presence of international peacekeeping forces to protect civilians and humanitarian assistance teams. And the presence of peacekeepers makes it easier for the media to report.”

From the mainstream press one may hope for coverage of a pending Senate bipartisan relief bill that would authorize $52 million in humanitarian assistance for Congo for the next fiscal year, and, needless to say, for more crisis coverage. Writing  from Congo, Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times provided just such coverage on July 23. "Congo remains largely forgotten," Polgreen wrote in a Week in Review article. "It is hard to understand why."

From the author whose five NBC and MSNBC interviews and groveling coverage elsewhere propelled a mean-spirited book onto the best-seller lists, more trashy tracts should be expected.

From the once-great networks that have closed so many foreign bureaus one may hope, admittedly against all odds, that journalism will replace the wholesale decanting of the venom of right-wing bloviators into the public ear.            

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