Magazine article The Quill

Are Audiences Stuffed or Starving?

Magazine article The Quill

Are Audiences Stuffed or Starving?

Article excerpt

Successfully "stuffing the 24-hour information gullet" means drastically oversimplifying news of Third World disasters.

That's Susan Moeller's conclusion after surveying decades of how the media "sell" stories of far-away disease, famine, war and death to a reluctant public.

Moeller, a former network consultant and photojournalist, now directs Brandeis University's journalism program. Expanding on her new book, "Compassion Fatigue" (Routledge), she told a Harvard seminar that American audiences don't often get, and may not want, Third World coverage with nuances.

Time Magazine's newsstand sales drop 25 percent with a foreign cover subject, she said. In 1977, 21.2 percent of Time's cover stories concerned foreign affairs; 20 years later, it had dropped to 5.8 percent. The major television networks now devote 13.5 percent of their nightly news programs to international stories, compared with 45 percent in the 1970s. And the country's 1,506 daily newspapers have only 286 full-time foreign correspondents, 100 of them with The Wall Street Journal.

Moeller contends that as journalism has changed from public service into "infotainment," it has turned disaster coverage into a "hero-victim fable." A complex series of agricultural and political circumstances may cause famine, for example, but audiences are moved only by a story about a starving child rescued by an aid worker.

"The public gets the notion that if you feed the child, the famine will end:' She added that if the story doesn't fit into a hero/blameless victim model, it won't sell, citing the complex Hutu/Tutsi war in Rwanda as an instance in which there were no "good guys. …

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