A Child with a Name

JACK LULE

May 19, 1993|By JACK LULE

BETHLEHEM PENNSYLVANIA. — Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. -- Victor Mladenovic, 1 year old, is rarity in Sarajevo. He is a child with a name.

He has a name for only one reason: He had the good sense of timing to be born the day before the Serbs first shelled Sarajevo. A year later, a wily wire-service photographer had the idea to shoot Victor (that is, photograph him) to illustrate the first anniversary of the conflict. Presumably, the photographer may stop by next year, if Victor survives, for another shot.

Most children in Sarajevo as well as Somalia, Sudan and other sites of newsworthy desolation receive no names in our news. If they are suffering enough, the children provide anonymous faces to be framed, pain to be packaged, images to be exploited.

With image after image, networks, newspapers and magazines exploit the suffering of the world's children. There are complex, even good, reasons for this exploitation. There always are.

American news audiences apparently have no appetite for foreign affairs. The news media, especially television, mostly serve up domestic courses, such as ''Eye on America'' and ''American Agenda.'' They keep us up to date on unemployment, the stock market, housing starts and any aberrant acts of interest from Waco to Washington.

Long-enduring, international atrocities which one might naively think of as significant news stories are often ignored, unless the devastation reaches some kind of spectacular pitch or an American celebrity or politician becomes interested. Even then, the restless eye of the news quickly gets bored.

How then do the media continue to sneak peeks of Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina into the mix?

They exploit children.

Indeed, the media overwhelm us with a surfeit of suffering children: a child collapsing from starvation with a vulture perched nearby; a child, one of 500, standing by a bed in an orphanage; a child, fallen from a truck, running and screaming in terror down the street after his mother; a child pressing hands and face against a bus window as he is separated from his father.

Nameless children. Nameless children. They don't get names because the news is not interested in them. The news is interested in the picture of their pain, the drama of their sorrow, the impact of their suffering, the enactment of their terror.

Is this so terrible? At least, the media are keeping those nations in the news. Without the children, Somalia might yellow into yesterday's news alongside Bangladesh, Ethiopia and other long-forgotten crises.

But it is terrible. The news media are capitalizing on the suffering of children, and that's not worth whatever tenuous good those pictures might accomplish. The children serve as dramatic devices and the news exploits them to draw a tear, to hold an eye, to make a transition, to make a buck. The media use children to affect and arouse, then they cut the lights and go home (an operation with unseemly similarities to child pornography).

The children deserve a fuller hearing. They need their stories to be told. The news media could be faulted less and trusted more if they brought us not images of children but the story of a child and not just on a birthday.

Jack Lule teaches journalism at Lehigh University. He wrote this commentary for the Allentown Morning Call.

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