Big media are not as big as we need them to be. A thousand reporters herd to the Michael Jackson trial, but not enough seek out places where really important news is breaking. The number of fulltime foreign correspondents working for so called “major networks” and newspapers has decreased in recent years  as has the amount of of money and resources mainstream media spends on foreign newsgathering.  Tom Fenton, the veteran foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and CBS News just noted: “American news organizations [have] so depleted the ranks of hard news reporters over the years that they suddenly had to send out whatever lifestyle, fashion, and gossip types they could muster on a moment’s notice.” 
The mainstream reporter, as well, often stays in capitals and major cities. Bloggers, however, can specialize, look at nooks and crannies big media don’t care or don’t know about, or don’t have any focus on.
Take Bird Flu: Those two words are getting major big media coverage and government attention.
Here is one item covered by the BBC of a few days ago.
Two teenagers in Turkey have died of bird flu, Turkish officials say, in the first cases outside South-East Asia.
CNN reported: “TURKISH BOY” dies from Bird Flu.
CBS: Also, now, as of today reported a third death in the same family.
MSNBC reports new cases in the Turkish capital.
The stories are treated as a medical item. Important–but nonpolitical. But there is one factor missing. Southeastern Turkey is a Kurdish region.
Why is this vital information?
Vladimir “van Wilgenburg” a young Dutch student and journalist blogs “From Holland to Kurdistan,” independently studying news from the Kurdish region of Iraq and the Kurdish lands in Iran, Syria and Turkey. He reveals an important detail of the Bird Flu story: The first family hit by the flu and the deaths were ethnic Kurds, a people long persecuted by the Turkish government.
This is his report on “Turkish state not helping Kurds dying from flu (Saturday, January 07, 2006):
Due to extreme poverty, many [Kurds] have chosen to eat their sick animals rather than bury them in lime pits. Several residents said Turkish authorities had failed to properly inform the Kurdish-speaking community about what bird flu is and how it spreads to humans.”Do you know what we can do against bird flu?” three students from a vocational medical school asked an AFP photographer on the mud-covered streets of the town, where donkeys compete for space with motorised vehicles.
“People are trying to learn what is going on from television, but most do not know Turkish fluently, they speak only Kurdish,” said a high school student who only identified himself as Erhan. Some, meanwhile, appeared to have taken official warnings to heart. “I do not eat poultry. I stay away from poultry and I do not let passengers with live poultry in their hands into my car,” 30-year-old taxi driver Hakan Capan said.Others took a more fatalistic aproach to the threat. Nuri Akatar, a 35-year-old self-employed father of eight, said two of his children fell sick after his wife cut up sick poultry and cooked them, but underlined that he was sure it was not bird flu. “We went to the doctor who said we were not in danger. If something happens to a member of my family, there is nothing I can do, I will leave it up to Allah,” he said.
Farm minister said bird flu had been detected in two wild ducks near the capital, Ankara, nearly 1,000km west of infected areas. “The disease has been identified in two wild ducks near a dam at Nallihan (about 100km west of Ankara),” Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker told a televised news conference called to brief reporters on the situation in eastern Turkey [ Nort-Kurdistan].The discovery suggests migratory birds may be spreading the disease across the large country, as experts had warned.
Kurdish family in vainWails echoed from the home of the devastated Kocyigit family, a simple concrete structure built high above this Kurdish town. Beneath snow-covered mountains nearby, an open grave awaited.
The family has lost three of its four children this week to bird flu or suspected bird flu: 14-year-old Mehmet Kocyigit and his sisters 15-year-old Fatma and 11-year-old Hulya. The fourth was hospitalized.The doctor who treated the Kocyigit children said they most likely contracted the virus while playing with the heads of chickens who had died of bird flu. The children had reportedly tossed the chicken heads like balls inside their house.
As teams dressed in protective suits went home to home rounding up poultry for destruction, mourners trekked up the hill to the Kocyigit house. They took off their shoes before entering to sit with the children’s grieving mother. The father stayed at the hospital with their last remaining child until late afternoon, when he came back to bury his third child in a week.Hulya was buried later Friday in a simple, small grave in the corner of the cemetery beside her siblings. An imam wearing a mask and rubber gloves presided.
We’re suffering,” said an uncle of the children, Hasan Kocyigit.The Kocyigits were a typical Dogubayazit family — Kurdish, poor, dependent on and living closely with their livestock.
Bird flu does not easily infect humans, experts say. Eating cooked chicken is not considered risky. Health officials have said only those who had been in close contact with poultry were at risk. In Dogubayazit, that’s nearly everyone. On the main streets of this town of 56,000 near the Iranian border, cars and trucks compete with carts bearing live animals and with flocks of sheep.The people of Dogubayazit, 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) east of Ankara, are accustomed to living near their animals, and often it is the children who deal most with them. The people have seen their animals sicken before, but until now never thought it could put them in danger. “They knew the animals were sick, but who knew it would kill them?” Hasan Kocyigit said.
Language BarrierEducation is key to controlling the spread of the virus. That is hampered here by poverty and the inability of many in this largely Kurdish town — especially women — to speak Turkish.
Less than three months ago, Turkey tackled a large outbreak of the same deadly virus in a village in the west. No one there got sick, and the country was praised for its effective response.Here in the east, things have been different. [Reference to the Kurdish area]
Trudging over the hilltops toward other houses of brick, concrete and stone, neighbor Ahmet Tastan, father of nine, translated from Kurdish to Turkish for his wife and other women worried they or their children would become sick.They said they did not speak Turkish well enough to deal with doctors, and complained that the local hospital could not do anything for them, and that a larger one in Van where the Kocyigit children were treated was too far away.
….There is no trust among Kurds for the Turkish state and their policies
Or go to the Kurdish blog “Rasti”:
“Enforced poverty of Turkish-occupied Kurdistan, as well as lack of services, have been part of the policies of the Turkish state used to wipe out the existence of the Kurdish people. Are these policies now beginning to bear fruit for the Turks? What they could not do with all their armies, they are permitting a tiny virus to do.”
See also report in Kurdish media.
What a difference a blog or two makes: a political angle is brought in that probably contributed to the disease breakout in the first place. Where are the reporters for the networks, the big media? Why is this not the major press angle of the story?
Part of the propaganda of commercial media is that they keep us in touch with, as one slogan goes, “the news you need”; one network program even promises, “Give us 23 minutes and we’ll give you the world;” The New York Times’ most recent slogan is “everywhere you can’t be.” But the “world” and the “where” we tend to see in mainstream media is narrow, selective, episodic, torn from context. I illustrate this fact by asking my students to name more than two wars going on in the world today. Most can cite conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In my surveys, Vietnam, China, and “Africa” trail distantly behind. In fact, there are about 40 wars raging in various parts of the planet. Some objectively are huge news stories–1 million dead in the Sudan, 3.9 million killed in the Congo–but they receive scant coverage, while others are given saturation coverage. The Congo War is presently killing 38,000 people a month!
A study found that during a 15 month period the ratio of reports on ABC news from Iraq versus the Congo was 4997 to 4!
Why the disparity in news coverage of between say one missing American teenager in Aruba and tens of thousands dead in the Congo? The reasons are complex, political and logistical, but the result is that the herd chases its own tails (and tales). If Iraq is the big story, then all the lenses go to Iraq, Congo be damned. Meanwhile the U.S. mainstream media diverts into issues that we would all agree are quite trivial in the scope of the economy or world peace–the Michael Jackson trial, for example.
The blowback for such inattention can be fatal. On August 24, 2001, I wrote an editorial printed on the MSNBC Web site about the then wall-to-wall coverage of the missing intern from Congressman Gary Condit’s office. [*no longer online.] I pointed out that a Nielsen-estimated 24 million Americans had watched Connie Chung’s interview with Condit. I contrasted this immensity of news coverage with the fact that, according to United Nations reports, up to 60 million female children are “missing,” that is, presumed killed by parents who don’t want daughters. Also, 585,000 young women die annually of complications from pregnancy and childbirth; more children died last year from malnutrition than died during the era of the black plague in medieval Europe. Finally, according to the Save the Children organization, “in Asia, one mother in 19 sees her child die in the first year of life.”
I wondered if we couldn’t find some way to escape from the spiral of silliness, triviality, and “human interest” sensation that had become the news business, or at least instill a sense of relativity.
A few weeks later, on September 11, 2001, we were all reminded that important events and issues occurring in distant lands can explode in our backyard if we ignore them. Who can cheerlead for such a system of selecting “what is news”? Who will mourn its passing? Again, blogs may not be the only answer, but the mainstream media are the problem, and the many good, conscientious, honest reporters trapped within the system know it.
Let’s hope the bird flu is not the biggest blowback of all…
 Stephen Hess, “Media Mavens,” Society, 33, no. 3 (1996): 70-8.
 Daniel Riffe and Ariamie Budianto, “The shrinking world of network news,” International Communication Bulletin, 37, Spring, 2001: 18-35.
 Tom Fenton, Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All. (NY: Regan, 2005): 63.
Follow-up by Kurdish blogger Rasti in response to reports in Turkish and American media. Again, an exmple of important roles international bloggers can play in understanding foreign events.
It used to be that the only way to find out about terrible tragedies in foreign lands that were not the focus of herd journalism was to get newsletters from small human rights or political groups. Now we have blogs–about Zimbabwe or Kurdistan. That does not mean the problem is solved or that lives are saved, but at least we can’t plead ignorance.
Originally posted January 7, 2006 at PolicyByBlog