- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 2005

Famine in Niger

In the middle of Page 9 of last Sunday’s newspaper, we carried a short but heart-wrenching article with a small photograph about a famine in the African nation of Niger.

Written by Hilary Andersson for the London Sunday Telegraph, the article described in excruciating detail the misery suffered by the starving children at a U.N. feeding center in the Saharan country.

“Aminu, age 4, is covered in suppurating skin lesions, open wounds that won’t heal because his immune system is collapsing and his emaciated body cannot fight infection,” wrote Miss Andersson, whose primary job is with the British Broadcasting Corp.

“His ankles and lower legs are swollen, a sign that the water lodged in his lungs is also collecting in his limbs — and another symptom of starvation.”

Until today, the article was the only one we have carried on the famine, which seems to have crept up unnoticed even as rock stars and world leaders were congratulating one another on their sensitivity to African needs at the G-8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland.

In today’s editions, another story appears, detailing the arrival of emergency relief supplies, as well as a visit by French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, who chided the international community for doing too little, too late.

An estimated 150,000 children are in an advanced state of starvation and hundreds of thousands more are at risk.

A week ago, I might not have known about it at all if a BBC crew had not begun broadcasting pictures from the country about a week and a half ago.

That is not to say that Niger has been entirely out of the news. A quick search of our archive shows Niger has been mentioned in more than 25 stories this month — almost all of them concerning the fuss over diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV’s 2002 trip to that country in search of evidence of a uranium sale to Iraq.

News judgment

Similarly, acres of newsprint have been devoted in this and other American newspapers to the wave of terror attacks in London, which killed 56 persons. But barely a word has been reported as thousands of African children face excruciating deaths with barely a mention.

It’s not because we are heartless or indifferent to their suffering. A more reasonable accusation, perhaps, would be to say we underestimate the interest and compassion of our readers.

At public forums, or in meetings with visitors to the newspaper, I am often questioned or lectured about our responsibility to report more about one issue or another.

My standard answer is that we operate in a marketplace of ideas, and that it neither is nor should be our responsibility to decide what people ought to read.

Rather, we put together a package of the stories each day that we think will interest the largest number of readers, knowing that if another newspaper does that job better, our readers will go there for their news.

In our hearts, we may be hoping that the politicians and the rock stars will come out with public statements that will generate more public interest in the Niger famine and oblige us to give it more space.

But until they do, we have to look at the limited space available each day and decide whether we think more people will want to read about the British bomb investigation or the suffering in Africa.

Readers, in our experience, are most interested in people and events with which they can identify personally, and in a post-September 11 world, many urban Americans can easily identify with commuters being killed by terrorists in a subway car on their way to work.

Far fewer, we calculate, can see themselves starving to death in a famine in the Sahara. But I’d be delighted to learn that we are wrong.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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