I recently discovered a great blog, Meskel Square, written by a journalist in Ethiopia. In this post he discusses the starvation fatigue affecting the Wester media and public. One reason why media outlets stop paying attention to famine and starvation stories like the recent one from Niger is that they don’t involve war or other more glamorous causes, rather, they are simply the result of “just poverty”: <blockquote>In Gonder it was also “just poverty”. The children had been picked up in a routine government-run, UNICEF-funded, health screening of rural communities around the city. They hadn’t been caught up in any wars, rebel clashes, floods or anything dramatic like that. They had just been caught up in everyday poverty compounded by disease (the day before the hospital had treated two children, aged 7 and 11, for polio, part of a brand new outbreak - but that is another story). </blockquote> Maybe it’s the banal fact of poverty that turns people away from these stories, that makes them lose interest. But do we really need the constant, ever-accelerating spectacle of war to keep us focused on this? As I write this I’m watching more images of starving people in Niger on BBC World. They’re horrible. What do these images mean? What purpose are they serving? The Meskel Square blogger quotes one of his Ethiopian readers complaining that “all you can think of covering is the same old recycled stories…” But these are people. They aren’t recycled. They’re experiencing this as acutely as we experience anything. But perhaps it comforts us to think that these are just stories that get repeated, that these aren’t new people being affected but simply newer versions of the poverty poster-children from before.
And why do I write about this, when there are bombings in London and Egypt and Baghdad, and the threat of terrorism looms throughout the West? Because this stuff is actually happening, now, and the victims are every bit as important as the unlucky people who lost their lives in Britain and Egypt, or the Sudanese refugees in Darfur, or people on the street in New York. Yet, through these images and these ways of reporting their pain, I fear we trivialize their lives and, by viewing images of people like Jessica Simpson all the time, we unhealthily continue to inflate the importance of other peoples’ lives.