Rwandan refugees set up camps outside Goma. UN [United Nations] photo/John Isaac.

[This article originally appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of Nieman Reports.]

I gleaned a lot of utterly bizarre and sometimes not very useful information in my years as a foreign correspondent. In the Soviet Union I collected lots of statistics. One of the first was on house fires. I don’t remember how many there were each year, but I do remember the leading …reporters and editors (and readers, listeners and viewers) get burned out, too. The cameras are shut down, the satellite phones folded up. Everyone goes home. Everyone, that is, but the refugees and aid agencies helping them.cause of house fires in the Soviet Union: Soviet-made TV’s which, it turns out, had cardboard parts inside them and an annoying tendency to spontaneously explode. A small statistic, but a significant clue about the technological prowess of our greatly feared nuclear enemy.

I always kept a too-good-to-check file in Moscow, packed with tidbits about legendary Soviet hoarders who stocked up for fear some good would disappear from the market. My favorite from that file was the woman in Kazakhstan who was rushed, unconscious, to the hospital one day. Investigators found 250 boxes of laundry detergent in her tiny Soviet apartment and concluded she’d been overcome by the chemical fumes.

These are the kinds of wacky stories that foreign correspondents love, because they help illustrate how the rest of the world is different from us.

Lately it seems that the biggest difference is how dangerous the rest of the world is—how so many places seem to be sliding into anarchy.

Remember Somalia? Remember when American correspondents were still reporting on what happened there? Your first order of business when you landed in Mogadishu was to bargain for a car, a driver and two or three guys with AK-47’s. That used to run $100 a day or so—$50 extra if you went out of town, because the gunmen would need to add a machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade launcher to their arsenal. I never got into a shootout in Somalia, but I always wondered why I should believe that, for $100 a day, split several ways, the bodyguards would actually stick around if we were attacked.

The perils of reporting in Somalia make great stories to swap with other foreign correspondents. It’s definitely a macho business, and wherever the crisis is, you’ll see a lot of the same faces turning up to cover it—the parachute artists, addicted to danger, whose specialty is landing and filing right away. File fast, file often.

That’s become a motto for how much of the media covers crises today, like Bosnia, or Rwanda, or Liberia. We call these post-Cold War crises and assign a certain set of characteristics to them. The conflict is often ethnic in nature. It’s internal—it’s no longer a proxy fight between the superpowers, though it’s often fueled by weapons left behind from Cold War days.

There is another common characteristic of these conflicts—the refugees they produce and how we cover them.

This is a hot topic right now in academia. Researchers talk about something called the crisis triangle. In one corner of this triangle you have the aid agencies that move into a crisis region to help the refugees and displaced persons. Another corner—the foreign governments, who decide whether or not to intervene in the crisis. Finally, there’s the media, whose coverage, or non-coverage, is believed to have a crucial impact on the other parts of the triangle. If the media are outraged enough, for instance, Western governments will feel forced to intervene. If the media cover the story, aid agencies get donations. But if the media ignore it, so the theory goes, there’s little money for aid and little will to intervene.

I went to a conference on these issues at Columbia University a while back. A lot of what was said had been hashed over in the press already—why did the media spend so much time in Bosnia, while virtually ignoring other places, like Tadzhikistan? In the audience there were a lot of relief agency officials, and they were pretty indignant about the seemingly serendipitous nature of refugee coverage—and the fact that so many crises were ignored.

Then one of the panelists, Alex Jones, who does a fine public radio program called “On the Media,” threw out a little bombshell. “I don’t think there’s too little coverage of refugees,” said Jones. “I think there’s too much.”

Well. Imagine saying that in front of people whose agencies make their living off of refugee crises and who depend on media coverage to generate sympathy and contributions. The notion of less refugee coverage is pretty scary to them.

But Jones is right on target. There is too much coverage of refugees. Too many repetitious, numbing pictures of helpless people as they flee, and starve, and fall prey to epidemics. And too little coverage of what pushed them out, what keeps them from going home, what happens to them if, as is often the case, they spend years, and maybe even lifetimes, in exile.

Without some context, the refugee coverage we offer our audiences is really no different from how we cover a hurricane or other natural disaster. It follows a fixed formula. The first stories are always about fear, flight, mass movements of people, the sorrow, the suffering. Then you move into the aid phase—is it coming, is it enough, is it getting to the people in need? There’ll always be some outrages in this phase—like the U.S. airlift that dumped packages of Camembert cheese for Rwandan refugees. Pretty soon you start working on sidebars: the orphaned kids, the Red Cross tracing program that tries to get them back with their parents, the burnout of exhausted aid workers.

And not long after, reporters and editors (and readers, listeners and viewers) get burned out, too. The cameras are shut down, the satellite phones folded up. Everyone goes home. Everyone, that is, but the refugees and aid agencies helping them.

So what have we really learned from the bulk of the refugee crisis coverage? That there’s another group of miserable, displaced people in the world, who make us feel helpless and hopeless. Or maybe just numb, because we’ve heard it all before.

And we’re not too sure how or whether these refugees differ from the last ones. What put them there, what happens to them next, whether the aid agencies made the right decisions about how to help them? These questions will get addressed in some media, the handful of newspapers with a significant foreign staff, for example. But on television, which has the biggest audiences and potentially the biggest impact to tell a crisis story, the refugees will drop off the news agenda until the next crisis.

We are a crisis oriented business. But lately we seem crisis obsessed. Why is that? I think a couple of factors have had an impact. One is the increased access we have in the world today. You don’t have to think too far back to remember totalitarian borders and restrictions that limited our reporting abilities. Less than a decade ago, I was covering the Soviet Union when a fierce earthquake shook Armenia. The next day Pravda ran a back page, one column story about it, maybe five or six inches long, saying there was an earthquake, and there was loss of life. One of those wonderfully vague Soviet phrases that really meant, this was a biggie.

This was 1988, and glasnost was well underway, but for a few days at least the old system prevailed. You want details? Too bad, we’re the Soviet Union, we don’t have to tell you. And we don’t have to let you go down and take a look at the damage that killed 25,000 people. In the end glasnost won and the Armenian earthquake got covered by media from all over the world. Donations poured in—food, blankets…bathing suits, always a useful disaster item.…

Along with our greater access to the world, satellite technologies let us report from the worst hellholes in the world. We can watch people die of Ebola in Africa. We can witness the middle-of-the-night landing of U.S. soldiers on the beaches of Mogadishu. We can land in Goma, Zaire, where a million Rwandan refugees were crushed together in 1994, fighting a cholera epidemic—and start reporting immediately on the horrors.

An hour after I got to Goma I watched a cholera victim deliver a stillborn baby—an aid worker dumped it in a grimy bucket—and sobbed as she carried it away to the trash. I’m not even sure why that moment stood out so much, there were so many other horrors surrounding me. A couple of days later an old woman ran up to me in one of the camps, pleading with me to adopt her newborn grandson, whose mother had died—and the grandmother had neither food nor water to give the baby. I’m going to put him on the ground, she said. If he wants, he can die.

A friend asked me recently, “How do you cover a story like the Rwandan refugees?” I said, “On automatic pilot.” I don’t mean to be flip, but a million refugees in one place—who can comprehend it? Who can make sense of workers tossing cholera victims into mass graves day and night, stealing their blankets as the bodies slip into the pits? Who can pay attention, on the third or fourth or fifth day when you’re driving for hours on roads lined with dead bodies, stacked just like firewood, in their neatly rolled funeral mats?

Keith Richburg of The Washington Post has just published a provocative book about his experiences as a black American reporter covering Africa. Richburg grabbed attention mainly for his argument that black Americans should not idealize Africa, that its problems cannot be explained away as legacies of colonialism and Cold War.

But Richburg has another message familiar to reporters who covered Rwanda, Somalia and other hellish stories where the victims of famine or war or genocide were always too numerous to count, or even comprehend. Richburg writes, “It’s not the death itself, although that is bad enough. It’s the anonymity of death…the anonymity of mass death. Does anyone care about their names? Does anyone at least try to count them, to record…that a human being has passed away from the earth and someone may be searching for him? Or is life so tenuous here that death scarcely matters?”

If Richburg is frustrated, imagine our audiences, when we present them, day after day, with more scenes from fetid refugee camps, more nameless people suffering and dying.

You could blame technology, I suppose. When it was harder, physically, to file a story, foreign correspondents had more leeway to do their basic reporting and reflect a bit before delivering the definitive story. Now, with satellite technology, it’s easier to file—but far more costly. A TV network easily runs up bills of $3,000 a day for one crew covering a foreign crisis. To justify that expense, the crew has to deliver fast and often. And what’s the easiest thing to deliver? More dramatic scenes of refugees and their plight. The details get lost—like the fact that among the one million Rwandan refugees whom we all pitied in 1994, there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands, guilty of genocide.

But let’s not blame technology and its expense for not doing our job. The technology should be neutral.

Now some journalists did do that with the Rwandan refugees. And what they found, by digging, by going back repeatedly to those nightmarish camps, was that the Rwandan refugees were an incredibly complex story. It cost aid agencies about a million dollars a day to run their camps—a million dollars a day, for two and a half years.

A lot of that money was stolen, or wasted. Over time huge markets grew in the camps and supposedly free relief food was one of the items on sale to refugees. So was homemade beer, and Pepsi-Cola, and imported whiskey. There were video parlors, restaurants, a slaughterhouse, barber shops, tailors, moneychangers—just about everything you’d find in an African village.

But that camp, called Kakuma, was a commercial backwater compared with the Rwandans in Goma. Why? Because on their way out of Rwanda, the refugees looted the country. Many were in government, and they helped themselves to government money and then used that to start thriving businesses in the refugee camp.…

Lots of ambiguities here, right? Lots of moral issues that never got explored during the period of crisis coverage, when the emphasis was on people fleeing, suffering, dying. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t cover the crisis. Of course we should. But we need to give it context, to think every day about what is new, or what hasn’t been told. And we need to go back, and back again, and explore issues like those posed by the Rwandans. Those reporters who did go back learned that among the aid agencies working in the camps, there were fierce debates about the morality of helping a refugee population that included genocidal killers.

These were enormous issues, involving a humanitarian project that cost the world billions of dollars. They are hard issues to present on television, perhaps, but they must be presented if news consumers are ever going to understand that refugees are not just helpless people who need food. They are products of complex processes, and decisions on how, or even whether, to help them cannot be made based on pity alone.

I think the first time this ambiguity really came home to me was in Somalia, on a day when I was traveling with American soldiers doing a kind of hearts and minds project in Mogadishu. The idea was, send some dentists and doctors and other soldiers out to help people at random, who needed a tooth pulled, or a wound treated. It made me a little teary to watch their good deeds—and I guess that was the point. It was a public relations project—not so much for my benefit, but for the Somalians.

But then the project moved on to its last stop of the day, where the soldiers gave out bags of grain. In no time there was a mob, and they were angry and hungry, and completely unaware that this tiny gift of food was supposed to win their hearts in support of the international presence in Somalia.

I asked one of the soldiers if this was what it was always like. Usually worse, he said. Yesterday, the mob broke through and it was chaos. Then he shook his head, puzzling over precisely what he, and the international community, were trying to do there. He said, we’re helping. But we’re not helping. You know what I mean?

I knew exactly what he meant. We want to help. But we can’t do it if we don’t understand what’s really going on. And we’re not going to understand if the media don’t explain it.

Ann K. Cooper delivered the 1997 Joe Alex Morris, Jr. Memorial Lecture, named for the Middle East correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and Harvard graduate who was killed in Teheran in 1979. These are excerpts from that speech. In 1986 Cooper opened National Public Radio’s Moscow bureau. From 1992 to mid-1995 she was NPR’s correspondent in Johannesburg. Her assignments also included the Rwandan refugee crisis in 1994 and other stories in southern Africa.

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