09/08/2010 01:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Whites in Shining Armor

Pick up your local newspaper after any disaster and you're likely to encounter a story about someone from your area saving lives, a photo of a movie star or other well-known person flying in supplies, or stories of international search and rescue teams pulling people from the rubble. Rarely will you see stories about local people, charities, or the government helping in the rescue efforts. Yet the majority of people rescued after every disaster are saved by family members, neighbors, by-standers, and local disaster response teams.

Our news coverage is so focused on Whites in Shining Armor that people are often surprised to learn that locally run charities are as common outside of the Western world as they are in your own home town. Why is this a surprise? Because there are rarely any news stories about local nonprofits. When Cyclone Nargis stuck Myanmar over 500 local charities and community based organizations contributed to the response efforts, but they received little if any news coverage.

Why don't news outlets cover the work of local organizations more? Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times, provides some insight in his response to a question posed to him from the author of the blog Texas in Africa. The question was essentially why do "many of his columns about Africa seem to portray 'black Africans as victims' and 'white foreigners as their saviors.'" Kristof admitted "That very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who's doing something there." Why the focus on Whites in Shining Armor? Kristof says that having a foreign protagonist is the best way to capture the interest of his readers.

This is the same technique your local paper uses. If they were to print a story about an Asian charity doing work in their community somewhere in Asia the story would very likely not get many readers. But a story of a hometown boy or girl going to that exact same village to do charity work has a local spin and local interest. Thus the story line of Whites in Shining Armor, the idea that aid is only done by selfless Westerners, is endlessly repeated.

Charitable advertising perpetuates this misperception as well. In order to get people to pick up the phone and give, charity advertisements show only the worst of the problem. They do not mention the work of any local organizations or the government as this would detract from the urgency of the message. The stereotype of Whites in Shining Armor is reinforced by the commercial's main message -- they are the only ones that can help.