The economy of caring (or not)

22:00, Dec 05 2012

After 11 days holding the city of Goma in their hands, M23 rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have withdrawn from the city. Amid warnings of a growing humanitarian crisis and international pressure for a resolution, rebel leaders are preparing for peace talks with the government. The DRC's history is unfathomable for many New Zealanders, unfamiliar with conflict of this kind. Five million people have been killed in the DRC since 1994, fuelled by the Rwandan genocide and the estimated two million Hutus who fled across the border into the DRC as a result. Since then, constant fighting in the DRC has become the deadliest conflict in African history.

I'm surrounded by news about the DRC, by virtue of living so close. So far from what I've seen in the New Zealand news media, coverage of this conflict is difficult to find.

It's one of the first things you learn about in journalism training or news media studies - the geographic proximity/care factor ratio. It basically means that the further something is away from you, the less you care, and the less you care, the less likely the news media that serves you is to cover it. If there's a car crash in Perth and three international students are injured or killed, it probably won't make our news. If it happens in Pahiatua, well that's a different story.

We relate to the people and places we know, we more easily engage with them because we have clearer terms of reference. We care because it could be us, our partners, our children. We care because we've been to that city, we saw that actor from The Hobbit in a Te Puke cafe, we went to school with that defence lawyer. 

It may be the case, but is it right?

We are global citizens, now more than ever. We can gain an in-depth understanding of the context and history behind the news events we watch, and the cultures in which they happen, without leaving our desks. We are an egalitarian society, placing equal importance on all human life (and death). And yet seven children killed in a bomb blast in Pakistan gets 30 seconds on air, while a cat that survived a Trans-Tasman trip in a shipping container gets the full 90-second reporter treatment, and prompts more feedback than anything else. 

Back when I was working in the New Zealand media, I often heard people say something along the lines of "it's the media's fault, they don't give us the right news". I personally don't believe that we are victim to what the New Zealand media delivers us. Newspaper and website editors and broadcast news producers are not stupid. Content is there to inform, educate and engage - but most of all it's audience-driven. If the research shows people want more international news, then more international news they shall get.   

As always, keen to hear your thoughts on this one. Do you think we should care more about the massive international events happening around us? Or are we at the mercy of whatever we are delivered?

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