Coverage of international crises shaped by trends

Global activism requires help from media to keep momentum, stay relevant

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Global events

With the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising just recently past, Tibet is once again making front-page headlines and news broadcasts.

The 1960s were ridden with protests and rallies for a Free Tibet, but only recently did the Beijing Olympics, followed by the 50th anniversary of the uprising bring the public eye back to Tibet. For decades media outlets fell mostly silent on the issue, even though Tibet continued to fight for independence and even though the Dalai Lama remains living in exile.

“Movements have their ups and downs ... but that’s just part of the reality that all movements and causes have to deal with,” said Tsering Lama, Canadian director of Students for a Free Tibet.

“Regardless of whether mainstream media covers us ... we’ll do our best to harness new forms of media to keep the movement alive.”

Tibet’s struggles with media coverage represent a larger trend, especially in daily media: the tendency to quickly shift from one international crisis to another rather than follow an issue to the very end.

According to Scott Colby, an editor at the Toronto Star, this is a common pattern in news mediums.

“The reason it’s called news is because the word ‘new’ is in it,” Colby said.

He explained how continuing coverage of crises such as the tsunami in Indonesia can become repetitive and overwhelming for readers.

Glen Pearson, London North Centre Member of Parliament, agreed media outlets are often mostly interested in featuring shocking crises.

“When you have a crisis like a tsunami or a civil war, the media covers that ... Once the war [in Sudan] ended and it became just a development issue, it also became less interesting,” he said.

Agitation from the public or celebrity involvement has proven an effective strategy for maintaining the media’s interest in a crisis. Colby speculated how Tibet has been a popular news topic lately partly because of the large population of new-age Hollywood Buddhists.

Celebrities have been involved in humanitarian crises since the original version of “We are the World” was performed by British celebrities to raise money for the famine in Ethiopia, Colby said.

He pointed to Darfur as an example.

“When George Clooney and Matt Damon got involved [in Darfur], that really raised its profile,” he said.

Alex Hodgson, vice-president media for Students Taking Action Now: Darfur at Western, agreed celebrities can help raise awareness.

“When someone like George Clooney gets involved, it kind of becomes a sexy topic,” she noted. “It’s good, I’m glad there are people out there that feel passionate about it, but it’s funny how people respond when someone like George Clooney gets up and starts talking about it.”

Hodgson said celebrities can help gain media coverage, but only temporarily.

“When [celebrities] come on board ... it’ll boost interest for a while until it fades away again,” she said.

Marc Foster, president of the United Nations Children’s Fund Western, explained how UNICEF is currently working on rebranding itself to create the type of image that grabs media and celebrity attention.

Campaigns such as Spread the Net have used branding techniques and celebrities such as Rick Mercer to get the word out about their causes.

“It is marketing,” he explained. “You pretty much need to go to the same levels that some of these corporations are ... that will get the media’s attention.”

According to Foster, there is a movement within non-governmental organizations to shift from the stereotypical “tree-hugging approach” to more corporate strategies such as hiring advertising agencies.

“Half of the executive members on UNICEF Western are business students,” he noted.

“It’s what the media wants, so you’ve got to work with that,” he explained.

Hodgson observed how even media coverage on campus has influenced interest levels in STAND’s participation levels.

“This year STAND has a much larger membership and a much larger executive and I think that correlates with The Gazette’s coverage of it last year,” she said.

Another trend in media seems to be an interest in foreign tragedies over local problems. While there are clear societal issues in Canada and the United States, the public often seems more fascinated by atrocities in the international community. Colby speculated this is because they seem more tragic than North American problems.

“It’s rarely that bad here,” he said, pointing out, “You walk past homeless people in Toronto all the time.”

Colby said the media’s obsession with international crises is reflective of public interest.

“I think that there is a sense if you’re poor and suffering in North America, maybe you kind of deserve it " maybe you’re lazy, or an addict.”

According to third-year arts and humanities student Jessica Martin, however, it is the media that influences public interests.

She volunteered in Winnipeg during Reading Week with Western’s Alternative Spring Break program. The program offers spring break volunteer opportunities for students anywhere from London, Ontario to Winnipeg, to Guatamala and Peru.

Martin noted how the media’s focus on international crises has influenced volunteering trends and applications for ASB.

While it took an additional open call to fill the two Canadian teams, Martin said ASB sent three full teams to Louisiana.

“The more coverage [a crisis] gets in the media, the more likely people are to think of donating to the cause,” she explained.

Catherine Mulvihill, student engagement programs co-ordinator for Western’s Centre for New Students, works with the ASB program.

“There’s always a need going on, even in our own backyard,” she said. “But people don’t necessarily get as excited about it initially.”

Pearson urged students to continue pushing for awareness and equal media coverage of international issues.

“Students are keeping these issues on life support. They provide the watchful eye, the collective eye of students.”

- With files from Mallory Daley

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