Wednesday, July 27, 2005

And Now For Something Completely Unrelated

One might be forgiven for passing over an NYT "Most Emailed" piece sporting a headline like "All Ears for Tom Cruise, All Eyes on Brad Pitt," even with Nicholas Kristof's name attached. That's exactly what I did yesterday, so it wasn't until I later saw the column listed on Memeorandum that I discovered it's actually about the news media's pitifully minimal coverage of the crisis in Darfur. Kristof spends most of the column excoriating his colleagues for paying more attention to Messrs. Cruise and Pitt than to the "worst humanitarian crisis in the world today." Now this is obviously an issue of concern, but I was hoping for a more cogent analysis that explained the problem and extrapolated future developments. So it looks like I'll have to be the guy to provide it, perhaps with a little assistance from my friend Shanto Iyengar, chair of the Comm department at my alma mater.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I've neither met Prof. Iyengar nor taken any of his classes (though I did attend a guest lecture he gave for a class I was taking). But I have read two of his books, News that Matters and Is Anyone Responsible?, so I feel more than qualified to apply his theories to the current matter at hand. (I'm conveniently ignoring the fact that the more recent of the two books was published 14 years ago).

Anyway . . . Iyengar hypothesized that the news media (specifically TV news) exerts an agenda-setting effect that alters its audience's perceptions of issue relevance. The more often the networks broadcast stories covering a particular topic, the more significance the public imputes to that topic. But I don't think that Iyengar's deterministic account of media influence can adequately explain the media's stingy treatment of Darfur. Even the most committed celebrity voyeur would be hard-pressed to claim that the Michael Jackson trial was more significant, in an absolute sense, than what's going on in western Sudan. The agenda-setting hypothesis still holds true in that the media sets the agenda for Red American watercooler bull sessions, but it's not shifting anyone's sense of priority in this case.

The obvious explanation as to why Cruise, Jacko and Pitt are getting more airtime than Darfur involves turning the blunt end of the causal arrow toward the audience. Attractive white women in distress = higher ratings compared to depressing reports of African genocide and displacement. I was disappointed but not suprised that Kristof failed to raise this point; he explicitly subscribes to a romantic, Fourth-Estatish view of the press as a political advocacy collective whose primary purpose is to tell the people what they need to hear rather than what they'd like. But Americans have a lot more news choices today than when Kristof started writing for the Times in 1984, and money drives the game to a much greater extent than it did back then.

So what's gonna happen, then? Short of significant American (military) involvement in the Darfur conflict, the news media will probably continue to shortchange this deplorable situation. Kristof saves a few harsh words for the government, but he doesn't acknowledge that the fact that most Americans care only about their own means that international coverage by domestic media will predominantly cover those issues in which we play a major role (witness Iraq, the tsunami, North Korea, etc). The world's inherent ugliness fosters a need for mediated self-esteem reinforcement and escapism, and that's by and large what the networks and papers deliver. By the time news consumers reach adulthood it's long past too late to cultivate an interest in the outside world; conditioning a responsible citizenry will take concerted investments in education from the cradle up.

But I'm not holding my breath.