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'Reporting should help make the world better'

The world is seeing a number of huge crises that seldom make the news, or are forgotten at the next "sensation." Media expert Hektor Haarkötter explains some of the reasons for this to DW.

The world is currently experiencing a number of crises all vying for media attention - from conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan, to the struggle against "Islamic State" in the Middle East - to name but a few. But what are the criteria that define whether and how long a certain topic remains in the news before being superseded by apparently more urgent matters? And what effect does it have when international media outlets turn to covering stories elsewhere?

DW asked media analyst Professor Hektor Haarkötter from the German media watchdog Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung to explain some of the reasons why some things make the news, and others fall by the wayside.

Deutsche Welle: What are the criteria, or factors, that determine whether a topic makes it to the headlines?

The word "factor" is the right one here, because that is the heart of what journalism researchers call the "news selection mechanisms." Today we know whole catalog of factors that news editors use to judge whether a story, or event, is worth including in the news, or not.

But the story of how this catalog of "news factors" came about is an interesting one. It was not media researchers or journalists who devised it, but a group of Scandinavian peace researchers in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, they were looking intensively at issues to do with nuclear disarmament, and asked themselves how come it was so difficult to get a topic that affected every person on the globe into the news. They discovered there were certain 'laws' governing why some topics made it and others didn't.

One factor was, for example, how close to home the event was; something that happens near my home or affects me where I am is much more important to me and thus has much more chance of getting into the news than something happening far away. Ten thousand people can be killed in China or India without it interesting more than a few people here in Germany or Europe. But if 70 people die here, or 150 in a plane crash, then the dimensions may be much smaller, but the event is accorded much more importance simply because it is nearby - because it apparently affects us or could affect us.

Map showing conflict regions.

'Forgotten' conflicts are raging in many parts of the world

This theory in fact goes back to the 1920s and stems from Walter Lippmann, who is considered the founder of communication and media studies. He wrote a book in which he defined "news value." He wrote that there were, for example, elite nations and elite people. And if anything happened in these nations, or with these people, then these events had far more chance of getting into the news.

So a story in the USA is far more likely to make it to the headlines than something in Timbuktu, or southern Africa, simply because the USA, from our Western European point of view, is an elite nation, so we are interested in what happens there and perhaps a little less interested in what happens in other countries.

Can you name any political factors that determine what is reported and what isn't? Does politics sometimes have an influence on the topics that are discussed?

That is a complex question. It could mean politicians themselves trying to influence reporting and determining the agenda. That depends very much, of course, on the political system and thus the media system in which the news is being reported. We know that in Russia, for example, there is a lot of political influence on television stations and newspapers, whereas we hope that this does not take place in Western democracies.

But we also have a debate in Germany about the fact that public [non-commercial, ed.] broadcasters are very tightly supervised by politicians along party lines, and there are of course possibilities and mechanisms they can and do use to influence things. But whether they manage to do so is a matter of debate, and, I hope, rather unlikely. Journalists themselves with their own political preferences can also have an influence on what news topics are chosen. But as media users we should be taking part in this debate and forming our own opinions about what influence is shaping the selection of topics.

Do you think public demand also has some influence on what topics are chosen?

By all means! I think that its influence is very strong. The recent crash of a Germanwings plane was a good example of this. On the day the crash occurred, the news was extremely scanty; you could have put what we really had in the way of confirmed information in three or four sentences. Despite this, internet sites and TV and radio news broadcasts were full of pseudo, almost fictional news, with lots of speculations even though there was nothing to speculate about. The great desire for information on the part of the public made journalists feel that they had to produce stories, even though they really had no facts to go by. I believe this case made it very clear that the need the public has for stories has a very strong influence on the news selection of journalists. People want to have something told to them whether there are facts to bear it out or not.

Such events tend to push other stories out of the news. Are there global crises at present that are being neglected because of such urgent news?

That is a mechanism and phenomenon we know from media and journalism: certain top events can push all other events out of the headlines. It is a good tip for dictators or other people who are up to no good to wait until the Olympic Games or a soccer championship starts before starting a war, for example - they can be sure that the attention paid to such sports events will be so great that many negative things happening in the world are simply not noticed. In Germany, taxes are often raised during soccer championships because politicians know people are more interested in the result of the night before.

Prof. Dr. Hektor Haarkötter

Prof. Haarkötter sees journalism as a way to improve the world

The number of crises ignored by our journalists and news broadcasts is legion. There are countless years-long, decades-long conflicts that are almost not reported on any more in our region. What about the civil war in Congo, what's happening in Somalia, what's going on in West Africa, what about Ebola, and so on? These conflicts are continuing with unmitigated harshness and complexity, but they are barely being reported on. And that is a problem, because reporting has a purpose. It is meant to shock us into action, help to make the world better. But it can only do that if we know what is going wrong in the world, if we know what is going on in Congo, or Somalia, or in Nigeria, or in Saudi Arabia.

Where can we find information on such "forgotten crises"?

There are independent media outlets that try to spotlight different topics. But in Germany, even some allegedly conservative newspapers such as the FAZ and Die Welt are surprisingly well informed and provide surprisingly good information. And today we have the possiblity to get information from NGOs and aid organizations over the internet that our mainstream news broadcasts and our mainstream newspapers may have sidelined. We still have a great diversity of press outlets, and I believe that press diversity is the best guarantee for diversity of opinion and thus for good acces to information for everyone. If this diversity of the press and opinion were to be reduced, owing to economic pressures or a change in the media landscape, then the problem of selective news reporting would become even greater - and I believe that would not be such a good thing in a socio-political regard.

Professor Hektor Haarkötter teaches media studies at the Hochschule für Medien, Kommunikation und Wirtschaft (University of Applied Sciences) in Cologne and is also managing director of "Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung", a German media watchdog.

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