Last year, the Centre for the People and the Press conducted research on the US public to find out the audience’s news interests and preferences between 1986 and 2007. It turned out that in spite of a great interest for conflict news over this period, results have shown that the latest conflict in Somalia was far from being a priority for the public. Astonishingly, the on-going war in Iraq still ranks first, despite the uprising discontentment of the Americans with regards to this conflict. I will analyse why the American media have covered the Somali conflict in the past few months in the way that they did, in order to understand why some stories are meant to be newsworthy while others never reach the limelight.
“Americans are terribly preoccupied by themselves” stated Susan Moeller (1999, pg 14) in her book Compassion Fatigue. As a matter of fact, an event seems to catch the media’s attention on the condition that the United States is involved in the story. Americans need to be linked to an event in way or another to feel concerned. Media and American media in particular, require symbols to find a story newsworthy. The image of a statue of Saddam Hussein overthrown by an American char and shown over the world is a good example of how such “conventions” guide the American news agenda.
News is a man-made product. The role of the media is thus to give the public stories that are believed to be politically, culturally or economically newsworthy. Fishman (1980) established that journalists led news “by making decisions on their beat structure rather than on news values”. This beat structure consequently favours the “entertaining side” of the event to stimulate the public interest, such as the example of the story of the American soldier Jessica Lynch. As a consequence ongoing conflicts tend to loose their value. In other words, the “Attention to a novel or unusual stimulus lasts as long as it creates a difference between what is seen and the person’s schema (Carolyn Rovee-Collier, 1989). Moreover, given that the Iraqi war remains a priority of the US government, as the media attention on this issue reveals, it seems like there is no place enough for Somalia or even other regions at war on the front of the “stage”.
Since the US air strikes in Somalia last year, the country is now at a deadlock. Nothing new is happening so the media turn away because editors don’t want to send correspondents to cover events they know will not appeal to their audience.
This results in the American media relying ever more on the major Western news agencies to cover “stagnant” ongoing conflicts, such as the Somali conflict. However, even the news agencies end up loosing interest in these remote regions. In Susan Moeller’s book (1999, pg 11), Tom Kent, international editor at the Associated Press explained: “Basically, in our coverage we cover things until there’s not much new to say”. This leads to a vicious circle since images play a preponderant role in the coverage of conflicts. Without images, a story such a war cannot concretely exist in the minds of the public or is at least hardly newsworthy.
The progressive disinterest for the ongoing conflicts leads to an unawareness of these regions. The trend which consists in stereotyping peoples into a dehumanized community raises the question of ethics and objectivity that all journalists should consider. “Practices such as seeking multiple witnesses to an event, disclosing as much as possible about sources, and asking many sides for comments” described by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (2001, pg 71) are often put aside in favour of a valorisation of the Western countries such as the United States, whether they are political or economical. It is believed that the Internet plays a role in this practice, since reporters can now have easier access “to stories and quotes without doing their own investigation” (Geneva Overholser, 1998). This does not encourage journalists to investigate accurately in countries such as Somalia where the system of clans and the religious wars are often particularly hard to understand.
Suffering from a lack of media coverage, Somalia seems to illustrate how news focus does not depend on the seriousness of the story. Particularly in the broadcast field, the media does not cover a country because it is at war, but because the country in which the story is reported has a vested interest in the matter in question. Some essential rules of journalism are thus often put aside in favour of “catchy” stories. However, I am convinced that the public is interested in what the media wants him to know; speaking about these regions only in terms of momentary “newsworthy-and-marketable events” reveals serious failings in terms of journalistic investigation.