News of the world offers skewed view

April 05, 2005|By Ben Barber

WASHINGTON - Terror. Horror. Hunger. Disease. Jail. Slaying. Gruesome. Car bomb.

Those headline words are from the only foreign news most of us read. And write, if you were a journalist like me for 25 years.

Our editors, publishers and producers believe - rightly, unfortunately - that the public is attracted to bad, shocking news. So we serve it up, no matter how unrepresentative of reality.

I have landed in some place described in the news as a disaster zone filled with angry demonstrators and bloody killers, only to discover most people are doing just fine, thank you.

In Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, Algeria, Cambodia, Iran, Afghanistan and even Iraq, most people get up each day amid a loving family, send their kids to school, work at some job, clean their homes and harm nobody.

But try to get that reality into the paper.

When I went to Thailand in 1982, the other hacks in the Foreign Correspondent's Club laughed when I said I wanted to write about the explosive economic development.

"Editors back home want prostitutes, refugees, opium, elephants," one said.

So I cabled a menu of eight story ideas to editors back home. Surprise: They wanted Cambodian refugees, opium in the hill tribes and the elephant training school.

But I also sold a story on a mechanical paddy plow called the Iron Buffalo, evoking the sadness of the farmer at selling his buffaloes and the wise Thai decision allowing duty-free imports of the engines. But it was rare to sell a story on economic development or malaria or irrigation.

Instead, I produced a series of bloody and frightening reports: Cambodia's civil war and Khmer Rouge killers; Burma's repression, ethnic conflict and refugees; Bangladesh's repression; India's Sikhs killing Hindus killing Muslims; and Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers with their cyanide capsules and suicide girls.

This is an old story. Local evening news implies our streets are awash with vicious killers about to murder you, your children and the dog. But we see with our own eyes that our fellow citizens are mainly law-abiding and, if not, we have a rather competent police and legal system to back us up.

But when it comes to foreign news, most Americans have never seen the peaceful faces and streets of Rabat, Morocco, or Jakarta, Indonesia. They see the world through a jaundiced microscope focused on horror, crime, war and hunger that most editors believe is news writ large.

Before a recent trip to Afghanistan, a news search produced only reports of Taliban attacks on isolated police patrols near Pakistan. One article focused on 50,000 refugees returned from Pakistan who still lived in tents, but said little about the other 1,950,000 returnees who, it turns out, were doing well. By now, 3.7 million Afghans have returned, the largest voluntary repatriation in modern world history. But you'll have to dig deep in the papers to find that fact.

When I asked a British radio correspondent in Kabul why he doesn't give as much space to the huge refugee return as a Taliban bombing, he said - in manner I could only describe as a self-righteous huff - "It's my job to write about problems and criticize things."

Because of that widely shared view among editors and reporters, most Americans think of the outside world as a hostile place, filled with angry, fist-shaking bombers, depraved governments, sadistic cops, corrupt merchants, disease and famine.

We don't need to whitewash the world's problems, just put them in perspective and give a more real view of the world. Editors think they need blood and conflict to attract readers away from the competition. But give reporters the time and resources to use their skills, compassion, writing and insight, and they can make the good news of the world sing, grab readers and also fulfill the mandate of a free press to truthfully inform readers about the real state of the world around us.

At a time when the public needs to learn more about those distant parts of the world that have reached out to kill Americans at home, or that compete with us for jobs and energy and influence, the news business needs to re-examine its priorities and methods.

Ben Barber, a former State Department official and correspondent, is a writer for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The views in this article are his own and not necessarily those of USAID.

Columnist Clarence Page is on vacation.

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