Population and the Press

Read Nothing About It

From the viewpoint of the American press, last February’s Hague Forum on population, a follow-up to the landmark Cairo conference five years ago, was largely a stage set for Hillary Rodham Clinton to look senatorial. Very few U.S. media outlets, with the notable exception of CNN (Turner Broadcasting is also producing a Year of Six Billion documentary narrated by Jane Fonda), provided continuing coverage of the conference. Fewer still offered analysis of how it fit into the ongoing story of global family planning.

In an illustration of how “pack” journalism can work, the Clinton impeachment trial and the funeral of Jordan’s King Hussein blew most other important stories off U.S. front pages. Meanwhile, the European press covered the Hague conference extensively, with the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, for instance, producing a story on each day of the four-day conference. Kathy Bonk of the Communications Consortium, which analyzed U.S. media coverage of the Forum, notes that wire services like the Associated Press also provided daily dispatches, but most of the bigger daily papers ignored them.

But pack journalism and the rush to sensationalism are only part of the story. Even in slow news weeks, the population explosion is a hard sell to the news media. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) spokeswoman Corey Shanahan points out that the story is an ongoing and not necessarily sensational one. “We can’t simply go screaming to the media that there are too many people on the planet and it’s all a time bomb,” she says. “We have to talk about women’s health and empowerment, and there’s a lot of misconceptions about that. For instance, many people in the U.S. are convinced that family planning necessarily includes abortion.”

“Reporters don’t often connect the dots,” adds Sally Ethelston of Population Action International. “They write about urban sprawl locally, but don’t show how it’s related to population growth and happening all over the world.” Ken Strom, executive director of the National Audubon Society’s Population and Habitat Campaign, laments the media’s failure to fully understand the population issue. “It’s hard for them to see a new or unique angle,” he says. “Even when they do write about population, they don’t make the environmental links.”

Some of the most thoughtful coverage isn’t widely circulated. One of the best columns linking population and the environment was in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. For detailed daily reports from the Hague Forum and the follow-up PrepCom meeting in New York City, you’d have needed an Earth Times subscription. And it helps when there’s “a hook.” Last October, the New York Times’ James Barron wrote a “Week in Review” piece about UNFPA that focused on Geri Halliwell, a “goodwill ambassador” for the group who also happens to be a former Spice Girl.