30 April 2004


Press Briefing

press briefing by Under-Secretary-General for communicationS

and public information

Too many news stories were “slipping off the radar screen”, and the Department of Public Information had decided to provide correspondents with an annual list of stories it felt merited more focus, Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said today at a press briefing to launch a new initiative entitled “Ten Stories the World Should Know More About”.

Presenting the initiative on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, Mr. Tharoor said the commemoration would reaffirm the commitment of the United Nationsto the principle of freedom of the press, and use the power of the media to draw attention to the plight of journalists who had suffered as a result of neglect of that principle.  Thoughts would also turn to the role of the media in world affairs, as they carried an immense capacity to influence, not just events, but the way people responded to them –- and that included governments.

There was a lot that the media left out, he said, adding, however, that it was not possible to cover everything.  It was understandable that media attention had been focused on Iraq, but there was an unfortunate side effect:  too many other stories were being ignored or receiving only marginal coverage.  The stories on the list needed more thorough, frequent and visible attention.  The list was a “snapshot” of the most compelling stories that needed more media attention.

He said that although the list had been prepared in consultation with other United Nations offices and agencies, the Department took full responsibility for the final selection.  The issues were big, but the coverage was not.  The list included several humanitarian emergencies and conflicts, but also other issues of concern to the United Nations, and was not intended to be representative of the main issues before the Organization.

The first story was merely the “first among equals”, he said.  It dealt with the child soldiers at centre of Uganda’s mounting humanitarian crisis.  That was a big story, and yet Iraq received 40 times as much coverage.  The rest of the list reads as follows:  Central African Republic:  A silent crisis crying out for help; AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa:  A looming threat to future generations; The peacekeeping paradox:  As peace spreads, surge in demand strains UN resources; and Tajikistan:  Rising from the ashes of civil war.

Also on the list are:  Women as peacemakers:  From victims to rebuilders of society; Persons with disabilities:  A treaty seeks to break new ground; Bakassi peninsula:  Recourse to the law to prevent conflict; Overfishing:  A threat to marine biodiversity; and Indigenous Peoples Living in Voluntary Isolation.

He said the list was not a criticism or an attempt to tell journalists how to do their jobs.  Nor was it intended to divert attention from the vexing issues on which the media often rightly pressed United Nations officials.  In addition to the influential international and national media organizations, the United Nations also had a responsibility to highlight stories that should be in the spotlight.  The Department would create space on its New Centre Web site, which would feature a major “story of the month” that it felt had been given short shrift in the global media.

In the ensuing exchange of views, one correspondent said they had hoped that the stories selected would be those that were underreported at the moment, but likely to burst onto the radar screen.  Journalists could justify writing about those kinds of stories, whereas it would be difficult to justify writing happy stories about the Bakassi peninsula.

Mr. Tharoor responded by saying he had similar difficulties in talking to governments about crises that had not yet occurred.  Trying to talk to them about preventive actions was akin to persuading a teenager to invest in a pension, he added.  While the media’s pressing need was understandable, the list was about stories that had happened but were not getting attention.

Explaining that the correspondents were the first on whom the initiative was being “unleashed”, he said that, in his own conversations with editorial boards, he had tried to go beyond the compelling story and attempted, with very modest success, to draw attention to things that were not visible on the radar screen.  It was important to resist the tendency to reduce coverage of international affairs and see what else was generated beyond the “hot button” issue.

Responding to a suggestion that the stories on the list were “soft” features, he said he was trying to provide stories that were receiving only little media attention.  Thought had been given to stories that the Department found to be compelling in terms of audience interest.  It was difficult to believe that the story of AIDS orphans in Africa was not worth covering.

A correspondent said that story had been widely reported.  Another suggested that the Department provide a kind of early warning system, while a third expressed appreciation of the information provided by the United Nations on the situations in Darfur, western Sudan, and in Haiti, where the Organization had people on the ground monitoring the deteriorating situation.  Yet another journalist pointed out that news tended to be about the unexpected.  Many of the stories on the list were very good, but generally would be better reported from the region concerned.

Other correspondents pointed out that they did not all have the same audience; the United Nations was not necessarily transparent in sharing information with journalists about places that were about to “blow”; and journalists suffered from “press conference fatigue” covering people who addressed correspondents simply because they were in town rather than because they had a focused bit of news to share.  One correspondent suggested that small lunches or “chats” between senior United Nations officials and small groups of journalists would be more helpful than “staged” press briefings.

Responding, Mr. Tharoor said he had no quarrel with those concerns.  However, his message was not that the correspondents were reporting the wrong stories, but that they should think about the underreported stories.  The Department was trying to say there was more to the world than was getting out from the reporting coming out of the United Nations.

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For information media. Not an official record.