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No News Isn't Good News

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There's not much new about the genocide in Darfur.

For six years now, the conflict has uprooted over 2 million people. The United Nations estimates about 300,000 have died while thousands of women have been raped.

That fact so little is changing makes the situation tragic. It's also what stifles news coverage.

Darfur isn't the only place where the "nothing new" status pushes reporting out of the mainstream. The Democratic Republic of Congo's 13-year conflict is rarely reported even though it's been named the deadliest since WWII. The Somali Civil War, ongoing since 1991, is today only covered in stories of pirate attacks off the country's coast.

There's little new. And, as media outlets compete with short attention spans and shorter budgets, dedicating coverage to "depressing" and expensive reporting of these regions is a luxury few can afford.

But Darfur does receive more headlines and political awareness than these other long-standing conflicts. One of the key reasons is Nicholas Kristof's reporting.

Since 2004, the New York Times reporter has traveled to the region many times. He's navigated roadblocks using frequent flyer cards pretending to be UN passes to report from razed villages. A Pulitzer Prize in 2006 made the public pay take notice. That included celebrities and policymakers.

Despite the fact little has changed, Kristof keeps risking his life by going back.

"I spent a lot of my career abroad," he says. "It made me attuned to the world. I came to think that news can add value by focusing on things that we're not paying enough attention to."

Around the world, journalists like Kristof put themselves in harm's way to cover stories no one else is talking about. There are also numerous publications committed to making space on their papers for their pieces. Each of them, journalist and publication alike, deserve praise.

Unfortunately, they are a dying breed.

Across the industry, advertising revenues are down and few readers pay for online content. Angryjournalist.com sells t-shirts stating, "Journalists get laid(off)." Kristof's newspaper is surviving by selling its assets and taking a $250 million loan with a 14 per cent interest rate.

Foreign bureaus are easy targets as newspapers make cuts to satisfy their budgets. Maintaining bureaus is incredibly expensive. Plus, the public is more easily wooed by cheaper-to-write stories involving celebrity gossip.

But losing the coverage is beneficial to no one.

"We went into journalism because we wanted to make a difference, not because we wanted to increase profit margins," said Kristof. "That desire to make a difference is why we have to make an effort to cover these stories."

Kristof spoke of one story involving a young woman in Darfur who had been raped. She hadn't told anyone in her village what happened because of the stigma involved. But, she insisted Kristof use her real name and picture in the newspaper.

"She said, 'This is the only way I can fight back,'" he explained.

To us, this story is not only a shining example of what journalism can do, but also why it is so essential. Kristof's byline carries weight. When it accompanies stories on Darfur, people get to know the conflict. That way, the public stays informed and the complex issue remains on the agenda.

And, most importantly, the woman gets a chance to fight back.

Despite belief that stories about Darfur and ongoing conflicts are disheartening, we think that's all a matter of perspective. If you look deeper, while the women's story of rape and genocide is heart-wrenching, her courage and drive is anything but hopeless.

Certainly, the media has a lot of obstacles it must overcome. But cutting coverage of important issues from Darfur to Congo to Somalia and further, is neither a solution nor an option.

Really, there's not much new about that.