People struggling to survive violence, forced displacement, and disease in the Central African Republic (CAR), Somalia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere often went underreported in the news this year and much of the past decade, according to the 10th annual list of the "Top Ten" Most Underreported Humanitarian Stories, released by the international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
The 2007 list also highlights the plight of people living through other forgotten crises, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Colombia, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Chechnya, where the displacement by war of millions continues. It also focuses on the ongoing toll of medical catastrophes like tuberculosis (TB) and childhood malnutrition.
"Certainly, many members of the press go to great lengths to report on what is taking place in conflict zones around the world," said Nicolas de Torrenté, executive director of MSF-USA. "But millions of people trapped in war, forced from their homes, and lacking the most basic medical care, do not receive attention commensurate with their plight."
MSF began producing the "Top Ten" list in 1998 when a devastating famine in southern Sudan went largely unreported in the U.S. media. Drawing on MSF's emergency medical work, the list seeks to generate greater awareness of the magnitude and severity of crises that are not always reflected in media accounts. Often, media attention is critical for generating and improving responses.
Childhood malnutrition is an example. Increasing coverage of effective methods to treat malnourished children with nutrient rich ready-to-use foods is generating a growing awareness of the need for changes in international food aid policies.
The DRC and Colombia, both wracked by ongoing civil conflict and massive internal displacement of civilians, have dominated the list over the past decade, each appearing a total of nine times. The humanitarian consequence of war in Chechnya has appeared eight times. Somalia has appeared seven times, most recently because renewed fighting centered in Mogadishu in 2007 has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, only to endure disease and extremely precarious living conditions.
According to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the online media-tracking journal, The Tyndall Report, the countries and contexts highlighted by MSF on this year's list accounted for just 18 minutes of coverage on the three major U.S. television networks' nightly newscasts from January through November 2007.
This figure does not include coverage of Myanmar or tuberculosis; both generated significant media attention, but very little of it focused on the medical humanitarian aspects of either context. Chechnya, Sri Lanka and CAR — where many villages were burned to the ground in fighting between government forces and rebels and tens of thousands of people fled into inhospitable forests seeking safety—were never mentioned.
Coverage of TB was somewhat of an exception in 2007, when an Atlanta man was diagnosed with a multidrug-resistant (MDR) strain of the disease. However, increasing levels of MDR-TB globally, including extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB, and alarming rates of people with HIV/AIDS co-infected with TB, received little attention.
"Local angles of international stories can often drive coverage," said de Torrenté. "Unfortunately, the result is that the focus is not necessarily on the most vulnerable and desperate -- precisely the people whose stories deserve to be told."