03/01/2012 05:05 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

Why Is Good News Not News?

Over the past several years we have seen emerging from our universities many 
young people who are dedicating their lives to helping others around the world. Working for a nonprofit used to be thought of as what you might do toward the end of your career when you want to "give back." But today, many young people are getting their MBAs and Ph.Ds in schools of social policy, international and public affairs purposely to build their careers in nonprofits. These young people are going abroad to volunteer and take internships with humanitarian organizations that work on poverty alleviation, global health and empowerment of women and girls in countries where governments have often failed their citizens. 

The universities seem to have captured this passion of the next generation, so why haven't our media caught on? 

The general media cover a severe famine or a genocidal war in an occasional article or television broadcast, particularly if a celebrity is involved. But as a longtime news consumer, I have observed over the years that news organizations believe there is little interest in the U.S. about what's happening internationally unless it is a war or a disaster. When I'm in Europe, I often see articles in newspapers or stories on TV that focus on people's lives around the world, while highlighting the people and organizations who are dedicating their lives to helping. But working with humanitarian organizations on a daily basis, I know how difficult it is for them to generate any coverage about their work in the U.S. media. At the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, we receive hundreds of nominations for the Hilton Humanitarian Prize every year, so we learn about the work of thousands of great organizations changing the lives of millions. We know the success stories of organizations that bring water and sanitation to millions, eradicate disease, stop blindness, help elderly stand up for their rights, eliminate female genital cutting and child marriage, provide for handicapped individuals in disasters, and change a family's life with a goat or a small micro-loan. But when I tell friends about these organizations, inevitably they ask, "Why haven't I ever heard of them?"

Yes, we may read about a billion dollar grant from the Gates Foundation. And yes, stories are published about a scandal at a nonprofit or aid workers who are killed or kidnapped. And these stories are news.

But, in my view, people also are interested in reading encouraging stories about real people who overcome poverty and futility and are able to redirect their lives onto a new path because a humanitarian organization has seen a need and figured out the best way to address it. The young girl who is excelling at school and has a future because her village now has a well and she doesn't have to spend hours each day bearing water for her family. Or the simple birth kits now available in developing countries that are cutting maternal death rates. Or the child who had cleft palate surgery and is no longer hidden away but can run and play with others. Or the blind father who had free cataract surgery in India and can work again. These are the true reality shows.

Coverage of organizations that are making a difference in the world could capture attention of a younger audience who the traditional media say are their desired readers and viewers. Media companies have tried a number of strategies to attract this demographic. Why not try covering humanitarian issues and stories?

That's not to say that older audiences won't be interested as well. Americans are the most generous people in the world when they hear about a disaster or a famine, or even about a family in need, but they first have to hear about it in order to help. Spotlighting those organizations doing important and effective humanitarian work is one way to help those who want to give or to volunteer to know which organizations can be confidently supported.

The Huffington Post Impact section and Nick Kristof, who writes a regular column in the New York Times and tweets and blogs about those who are most vulnerable and oppressed throughout the world, already have figured this out. CNN now has its "Heroes" and ABC has its "Million Moms." They are tapping into the growing passion among Americans of all ages to help others. I hope these examples are just the beginning of a new trend. Media tend to follow what works. Let's push them to see that good news can be good for the media as well.