We know Rwanda is the story that matters. Yet still we turn to Rooney | Jonthan Freedland

Faced with depictions of horror abroad, the urge too often is to switch off. But perhaps these stories are not so foreign after all

If the media covered America the way we cover Africa, here's what we would know of the United States over the last decade. That in 2000 there were fiercely disputed elections in which the presidency was seized by the candidate who won fewer votes than his rival. That a year later, one of the country's major cities was rocked by a devastating terror attack, costing thousands of lives. And that in 2005 another key city was submerged in record floods, destroying homes and leaving a thousand dead after the dominant tribe left the minority tribe to their fate. Surely we would speak of America as the dark continent, cursed to face constant suffering.

Much as I would like to, I can't claim credit for that riff, which belongs to my Guardian colleague Joseph Harker, who aired it first in an essay on race and the media. But I have been thinking of it, not least because I was a judge for the One World Media awards which were handed out last week. That meant watching and listening to the work of a dozen broadcast journalists and nearly as many in print, all of whom had reported on the developing world. It was a punishingly hard task and not just for the usual reason, cited by all awards judges, that the standard was exceptionally high. It was hard because no matter how good the journalism – and much of it was exceptionally good – it was almost unwatchable. By which I mean it was unbearable to watch.

Of course that was partly my fault for consuming these reports the way no punter ever would – back-to-back, one after another. But after an hour or two spent seeing children in Kenya speaking of the hunger that drives them to sell their bodies to European sex tourists, paedophiles who pay £5 to violate a 10- or 11-year-old girl on a beach – or watching footage of mass graves filled with the corpses of civilians murdered in Sri Lanka's 2009 crushing of the Tamils, many of them the small, slight bodies of children – there is only so much you can take. When confronted with the sight of men in Papua New Guinea proudly telling how they tortured and killed those they suspected of witchcraft, or with the image of entire Haitian villages submerged by hurricane-caused floods – even before disaster struck again in this year's earthquake – the urge to look away can be almost overwhelming.

The temptation, especially among journalists, is to imagine this is their fault, that if only they made their stories more appealing then they would capture the viewer's or listener's attention. So they try their best to humanise their tale of woe, to replace statistics with an individual. The result can sometimes be achingly powerful: witness the BBC radio interview with a 14-year-old Zimbabwean boy forced to be sole carer for his dying, Aids-stricken mother. Too often, though, this becomes a mere technique in a numbingly repetitive formula: the TV despatch that begins with the crying African baby before cutting to the (usually white) UN expert. Such reports turn all too quickly into cliche, the stuff of Chris Morris parody, and once again the finger is twitching over the television remote.

Others say the problem is not one of form but of substance, that the western media depicts the people of the developing world as victims – whether of poverty, natural disaster, corruption or all three. This casts the people of those countries as perennially, even innately, passive – those to whom life happens. It also accentuates the negative in a way that, for all the press's attraction to bad news, does not happen when the west discusses itself: as Harker pointed out, we know more about America than Florida 2000, 9/11 and Katrina.

The temptation then is to head in the other direction, to highlight the positive. This was the thrust of Jonathan Dimbleby's recent TV series on Africa, showcasing entrepreneurial and creative success stories – replacing the starving child with the cement billionaire. That's welcome. I confess my heart leapt when I came across one entry to last week's award, a TV report on the effort to build in Timbuktu, Mali, a library of great, pre-colonial manuscripts. An item that was not only upbeat, but also emphasised Africa's intellectual heritage, provided a rare contrast.

Yet that cannot be the template for coverage of the developing world. That too would be condescending and would never pass muster for Europe or the US. If we cover scandal, disaster and disease in Germany and France, surely we must do the same in Somalia and Congo. The challenge, of course, is to provide the whole picture – good, bad and ugly.

But this challenge cannot fall on journalists alone. The best of the award submissions were about as good as they could be, and still I know the vast bulk of the audience would prefer to read or watch something else.

This is partly a problem of all foreign news. Our curiosity about those far away is finite. As one old-time US hack used to say, "Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it." But, more deeply, there seems to be a limit to our capacity to absorb human suffering. We know terrible, heartbreaking things are going on all over the world; but to face them, for more than a fleeting glimpse, is more than we can take. This is true of both ends of the market: sure, Sun readers would prefer to read 10 pages on the World Cup than a single story about TB in Africa, but the Guardian's traffic figures suggest our own online readers are much the same.

What might make a difference? Of course, the objective reality could change, and coverage with it. Reporting of the developing world was different in the immediate post-colonial era, when the likes of Julius Nyerere or Kenneth Kaunda were making the weather on their continent. They were active, not passive; actors in their own drama. Too few of the developing world's leaders today meet that standard, whether compromised by corruption or client relationships with the west. Even so, the media does best when it sees the developing world the way it sees its own societies: not as a crude battle of victims against villains but as a subtle mix of conflicting, shifting political interests.

A second change might be too much to ask for, especially in these straitened times. It would help if the media's coverage of, say, Africa were more sustained: a steady supply of small, inside-page stories rather than the occasional special, produced by journalists who parachute in and then leave. Audiences can follow quite nuanced reporting on Israel-Palestine, for instance, because they have already had so much of it: they know the characters, can follow the twists and turns. It's a virtuous circle: the more coverage there is, the more interesting it becomes.

Perhaps more realistic is to insist these foreign stories are not so foreign. The eventual winner last week was Dan McDougall, who wrote three blistering reports for the Mail on Sunday, all focusing on the world's extractive industries. One showed the consequences of our ravenous appetite for lithium, the mineral used to power our iPods and BlackBerrys: those living around Chile's largest lithium mine are parched, as their water is either poisoned or diverted.

McDougall produced similarly eye-popping pieces on the Madagascan mines where the nickel for our coins comes from, and on the badlands of eastern Zimbabwe, where virtual slaves dig for diamonds, jewels that will eventually find their way here.

All these reports made the connection between apparently remote suffering and our own lives. This surely is the way to make the unwatchable watchable, to force us to look when we'd rather look away. The burden on the media, and everyone else, is to realise that all this pain is not only going on over there, in the developing world. We're involved – even here, in our world.


Jonathan Freedland

The GuardianTramp

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