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Study: U.S. Media Overlooked Major Humanitarian Stories in 2006

Last year millions of people in many countries lost their lives as a result of wars, violence, disease, and hunger, yet the major television networks in the United States did not tell their stories to the U.S. public, a new study on media coverage notes.

The staggering human toll taken by tuberculosis (TB) and malnutrition as well as the devastation caused by wars in the Central African Republic, Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Republic of Congo were almost completely ignored by the leading television networks, according to a well-respected medical aid group that monitors media coverage on humanitarian issues at the end of each year.

In its annual report for 2006, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, said it found very little or no coverage by the top three networks of the human suffering caused by ongoing armed conflicts in Haiti, Somalia, Colombia, Chechnya, and central India.

In a bid to highlight the questionable role of the networks in covering global affairs, the group has released a list of what it calls the "Top Ten" most underreported stories of 2006.

"Many conflicts worldwide are profoundly affecting millions of people, yet they are almost completely invisible," said Nicolas de Torrente, executive director of the group's U.S. chapter. "Haiti, for example, is just 50 miles from the United States [but]...relentless violence in its volatile capital Port-au-Prince received only half a minute of network coverage in an entire year."

The ten countries and issues highlighted by MSF accounted for just 7.2 of the 14,512 minutes the three major television networks devoted to their nightly newscasts in 2006, said Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, an online media tracking journal.

The ABC, CBS, and NBC networks did report on malnutrition, TB, and Chechnya, Tyndall said, "but only very briefly in other stories." They also completely ignored five of countries mentioned in the MSF list of underreported stories.

In its report, MSF, which provides emergency medical aid in more than 70 countries, said the worldwide TB situation has become "frightening" and that it became "even worse" in 2006 with the detection of a strain that is resistant to both first-line antibiotics and to two classes of second-line drugs.

Researchers working with the group said they were worried about the situation because none of the TB drugs currently in development seemed likely to improve TB treatment in the near future.

Worldwide, around 2 million deaths are believed to be caused by TB every year.

In addition to TB, each year millions of children in poor countries die due to severe lack of food. MSF said the use of therapeutic foods, like the milk-and-peanut-butter paste Plumpy'nut, could save many lives, but such treatment is not being widely used.

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  In the past two years, with this method MSF has treated more than 150,000 children in Niger, de Torrente said, adding that the new treatment strategies could save millions of lives throughout the world.

He said nutritional emergencies were not only the products of wars and conflicts, as many seemed to believe, but also poverty, noting that massive malnutrition existed in many politically stable countries where "insistence on addressing long-term development issues has come at the expense of meeting immediate needs."

Noting that continued armed conflicts in more than a dozen countries around the world resulted in massive loss of human life and destruction of resources, the MSF researchers described the media coverage as disappointing.

In their view, while the conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan and eastern Chad garnered significant media attention last year, the steady focus did not translate into improved conditions for people caught up in the violence.

"Even though there was more reporting on Darfur than about other crises," according to de Torrente, "the situation continued to deteriorate to the point where MSF and other aid groups had to scale back their programs."

"We know that media coverage does not generate improvements on its own," he said. "However, it is often a precondition for increased assistance and political attention. There is perhaps nothing worse than being completely neglected and forgotten."






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