Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Underreported: an odd kind of top ten list

As we near the shortest day of the year and the Christmas/New Year’s hibernation that spreads across much of the world, we’re entering list season. Newspapers, websites and other media release their top lists of best books, best films, best music, and I’m sure, duct tape, automotive lubricant and vegan bacon substitute. Time Magazine offers fifty top ten lists, including fashion must-haves and “t-shirt worthy slogans”.

I mention this not as a complaint – these lists are occasionally useful, and Global Voices authors are, in some cases, putting together lists of the best posts from their regions for 2007.

The lists I’ve been perusing today are the “underreported” lists – lists of stories that media critics or media outlets don’t feel were covered closely enough in 2007. Lots of organizations put them out. Project Censored’s leans to the left, while World Net Daily leans right. Medicine Sans Frontieres offers an extremely valuable list of “top ten most underreported humanitarian stories of 2007“, a list which includes conflicts in Somalia, DRC, Sri Lanka, Colombia and CAR, as well as drug resistant tuberculosis and nutrient-rich supplements to assist with child malnutrition.

It’s not too hard to understand why media critics – or groups like MSF, who rely on media coverage to help them raise funds – would publish lists of undercovered stories. But the term “undercovered” has an interesting implication bound up in it – the idea that there’s an optimal level of news coverage for each topic and that these topics aren’t getting their fair share. (I looked at this topic in some detail in 2003, building “models” for media attention that tried to predict how many stories a nation should feature in based on its population or its wealth. I received a lot of good critique, arguing that there’s no guarantee that just because two nations have the same population that they have the same amount of news – Nigeria may just be less interesting and less newsworthy than Japan.)

But it’s a little stranger to see a mainstream media outlet declare stories undercovered. When Time offers a list of the top 10 undercovered stories of 2007, should we read this as self criticism? Or as criticism of the broader media world? Or perhaps of the readership, for not expressing enough interest in stories the outlet was trying to tell and sell?

The top story on Time’s list this year is about Somalia, and is titled, “The Other Darfur“, looking at the more than 1 million refugees who’ve left Mogadishu. Intriguingly enough, Somalia topped last year’s list with an article titled “Islamist Takeover in Somalia“. And the situation in Somalia is one that Time has covered admirably – thought I disagree with some of the characterizations in Alex Perry’s stories, I’m impressed that Time is giving him so much space and leeway to report from Somalia. (Perry likely had some influence in this year’s list, as story #10 is about Ethiopian/Eritrean tensions, a story closely tied to the Somalia story.)

Somalia is the #1 story on MSF’s list as well. In their announcement of the list, MSF observes that all ten stories they list received a total of 18 minutes coverage on the US’s three major television networks from January through November of 2007. (The lists have another overlap, with both Time and MSF listing drug-resistant TB as one of the top undercovered stories of the year.)

So what do these undercovered lists do? Does Newsweek read Time’s list and check to see if they’ve got the correct Somalia:Darfur ratio? Or the right Somalia:Britney ratio, for that matter? (Oddly enough, Newsweek’s search engine shows proportionately more stories on Somalia than Darfur – 180:124 – while Time shows 747:1248. But Newsweek’s got a way higher Britney:Somalia ratio – 257:180, versus 351:747… Just imagine the coverage we could get by sending Britney to Somalia.) Do they challenge readers to find stories that they might otherwise ignore?

At the very least, these stories offer some advice on what we might put in the serendipity box. If Somalia didn’t receive enough attention in 2007, perhaps the answer is to ensure that readers trip over it in 2008.

What worries me is that these lists, by neccessity, can’t feature the stories we know nothing about, only the ones we think aren’t getting enough attention. My GAP scripts suggest that Somalia is getting fairly good media attention by African standards, certainly far more attention than the Central African Republic, for instance. (Which is to say, less attention than comparably sized wealthy nations, but more attention than most poor nations.) How do we construct warning systems that tell us not just the stories we’ve missed, but whole parts of the world we might be missing? Underreported stories seem like an example of the demand problem – we know there are stories in these countries, but readers/advertisers/publishers aren’t asking for them, so we’re not telling them enough. Is there another set of stories where our constraint in supply – we simply don’t know the story to tell?


Special bonus – the Underreported weekly feature on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC. Excellent 10-minute radio pieces on stories you likely would have missed otherwise. Great stuff!

One Response to “Underreported: an odd kind of top ten list”

  1. cheap travel says:

    Maybe Somalia is not so important as America, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton. But unfortunatelly, the situation there is a disaster, and people die. Seems like nothing happened!

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  1. …My heart’s in Accra » MSF’s top ten - how disconnection affects public health - [...] Frontieres top ten list of global humanitarian crises. I noted last year that this appears to be the season …

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