Determined by the ratings

By Ben Hoffman

The setting is Darfur, a small region in Sudan, and although great strides have been made in recent times to end the conflict, there can be no rendering of life anew for those lost, numbering in the tens of thousands. It had been hailed as the worst humanitarian disaster in recent memory, at least by those of us who knew it was happening.

Elsewhere on the continent, AIDS claims its most recent victim, one of the more than 24 million people that are HIV affected. Not all of these are adults who contracted the disease through sex and ignorance; many, in fact, are the children of affected couples, children that won’t outlast high school.

Bam, Iran; the date is Dec. 26, 2003, and an earthquake has just erupted killing 27,000 people. The boxing-day blowout barely scratches western news, scrawling across the tickers on the bottom of CNN for about a week and almost immediately thereafter relegated to the western collective unconscious. The date would prove not to live on in infamy.

Until 2004.

We are inherently one degree separate from important events that claim the lives and livelihoods of people on the other side of the world. This does not mean we should not care about them, but it affects how we are able to do so.

So when the biggest earthquake of 40 years caused a wave to destroy hundreds of thousands, we chose to display our concern by keeping a constant news-station vigil and support the devastated with monetary donations.

The amount of money we give to relief for an event is invariably proportional to the coverage of the event that we see on the television. In the case of the tsunami, there has been near non-stop coverage since its occurrence, and it is easy to see in funding drives that that proportionality has been maintained.

But what of the events that have high death tolls and receive no coverage? How many of us donated money to relief for the people of Bam? How much of a difference would more money for the AIDS crisis in Africa make? Did you even know that there was a crisis in Sudan?

It is not difficult to tell what rules our televisions–our primary information feeds–use to alert us to the condition of the world. Viewer-friendliness is important when considering what images to show: tsunami devastation and floating corpses offend fewer people than wounds of war after all. Also, accessibility determines a good news story: were there westerners involved, or, in the case of the tsunami, western celebrities? These are important considerations, decisions that will grossly affect ratings.

It is saddening to see how much our sympathies are determined by television ratings. It should be the goal of the media to keep people informed about all the tragedies of the world, and that goal has been breached with the over-reporting and sensationalization that many weeks of looping tragic videos inevitably endow an occurrence with.

Further to that end, it should be our goal as an information-savvy culture, infused with great powers like the Internet, to know what’s going on, and to help out accordingly. Until we do this, Sudan and its ilk will never reach the status they could, or earn the assistance the desperately need.

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