Field Notes Editor Nicole Blanchett Neheli finds out why the President of the University of Guelph said media weren't reporting on African famine because they deemed it a boring story, and speaks with CBC's Brian Stewart to get his take on how journalists are covering the devastating effects of famine in Somalia.

Field Notes Editor Nicole Blanchett Neheli finds out why the President of the University of Guelph said media weren't reporting on African famine because they deemed it a boring story, and speaks with CBC's Brian Stewart to get his take on how journalists are covering the devastating effects of famine in Somalia.


The media find African famine boring. 

I cringed when I heard the President of the University of Guelph, Dr. Alastair Summerlee, express that sentiment at a conference I recently attended. Not because I thought he was wrong, but because I was worried he was right.

Straight on the heels of hearing Summerlee call out journalists for their lack of interest in the famine, I went home and watched a newscast. Nothing mentioned about anyone starving, but a full reporter package on how to get your butt to look like J-Lo’s. I cringed some more.

When I spoke to Summerlee later, he acknowledged his comments were borne out of frustration. He was in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya when the Somali famine was declared back in July of 2011 and described it as “an absolute media frenzy.” Three weeks later, despite the fact nothing had changed, the reporters were gone—and they were still absent when he visited this past November:

“No one [was] trying to keep it top of mind for people and that was my comment about it’s no longer a news issue; it’s no longer new; it’s no longer different and so it’s no longer exciting to report. And yet, one and a half thousand people a day are walking into the camp, and are still walking into the camp as of this weekend.”

CBC’s Brian Stewart, who helped draw international attention to the Ethiopian famine in 1984, believes the suggestion the famine is too boring to cover is “too simplistic by far.” The fact famines happen in war torn or politically unstable regimes often makes them difficult stories to access, and there are many other issues:

Warnings go out from international agencies, they’re barely noticed by the media because there are so many of them. Drought spreads slowly; hunger tends to be not in any way dramatic like a sudden emergency and where the media fall down is frankly not paying enough attention to the non-dramatic catastrophes, as opposed to the dramatic ones.”

As for making the effort to ensure ongoing coverage, Stewart says, “This is the course of all stories, not just humanitarian relief—that after they play for a few weeks the media moves on.”

In a quick search on three national news websites, CTV had six stories over the past few months regarding the Somali famine, Global had three, CBC had none—its most recent offering was an article by Stewart back in September that asked why African nations weren’t doing more to help.

In fact, it’s easier to find video from the 1984 Ethiopian famine than it is to find video on the current crisis.

A national news television producer, who asked not to be identified, said her team had covered the Somali famine once or twice in the past six months, but didn’t agree the lack of coverage was because the story is boring:

“Television is driven by pictures – we rely heavily on feed services – if they aren’t shooting/providing video from those regions, it’s not going to get coverage. Also, unfortunately, the famine doesn’t have a PR team…I think that it is an on-going story, and maybe people have become desensitized to it unless there are catastrophic numbers attached to it – and gripping (available) video.”

Caroline Harvey is the Executive Producer of CBC’s Connect. She says her team did quite a bit of coverage over the summer by talking to people like Summerlee who had been to Africa. They were in the midst of planning a trip for Mark Kelley to go to the refugee camp in Kenya, but by the time they had everything in place the rains came. Although there was still a famine in Somalia, even the aid agencies said things were getting better:

“There’s no doubt there would have still been a raft of devastating stories to tell. But if you’re going to go out on a limb to tell a story you’re not sure Canadians are interested in, you want to make sure it’s worth it. I'm not sure it's fair to say the media aren't covering it because they think it's too boring, rather it's a hard story to tell from so far away.

Inadvertently, aid agencies may be playing a role in squelching public interest in African famine. Both Stewart and Summerlee feel the lack of coordination in Canadian humanitarian foundations results in too many voices asking for different things, making it difficult for the public to decide where the real crisis is, and for media to determine what should be covered.

Stewart also identified the lack of follow-up stories as a reason public interest wanes—people don’t see the positive impact of their donations and feel there’s no point in getting involved emotionally or financially.

Unfortunately, if there is a sense that stories won’t draw viewers and advertisers, the story may not run. As Stewart described it, “Editors are making their own decisions based on the fact that they have to bring eyes to the television news, that they have to have readers for the newspapers. That isn’t an excuse though for not trying to cover it and you can cover it in various ways.”

Stewart also says, “I think the media that is the most respected is exactly the media that will often deal with a lot of stories that a lot of other people are not doing or they figure out creative ways to bring the attention to them.”

In terms of journalistic practice, Stewart’s biggest concern is the lack of training for journalists who cover stories like famine. He says there should be courses to prepare reporters and editors “for the dynamics of disaster.” If the public is “dazzled and dazed by a world of constant crisis coverage” a more “consistent and educated message” would help clarify what’s really going on.  

Just this past week the UN declared that the famine in Somalia is over—but the human suffering continues.

Summerlee says, “My sense from being there is that there are enough stories both challenging and hopeful that there may be a progression that one could construct”—and he is willing to help construct that story by sharing his own pictures and experiences in Africa, along with those of a network of contacts.  

As newsrooms struggle to figure out how to stay relevant in a society where it’s almost as easy to gather information as it is to breathe oxygen, it is essential to ensure solid and continuing coverage of important events.

And perhaps by working with and engaging ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things, mainstream media can better cover catastrophic and complex stories— literally saving lives in the process.

A full transcript of my intervew with Brian Stewart can be accessed here on my blog.