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Sunday, April 17, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

Newsworthiness Vs. The Worth Of Human Lives

OK, I like gorillas as well as the next hominid, but I gotta tell you it felt a little weird to see gorillas get top billing in a report on fighting in Rwanda last week.

If you read the paper carefully, you'll remember there was a page Wednesday with two stories out of Rwanda. The top one was about 300 gorillas. It said there was a growing concern that the gorillas could become prey to poachers as the country falls apart. The story said that so far the gorillas were fine, though 20,000 people had been killed in the fighting.

It was a legitimate story, and an important one. There are only 600 mountain gorillas left in the world, thanks to us big-brained humans.

The story underneath talked about 100,000 humans fleeing the nation's capital, but it didn't say much else that a steady reader wouldn't have known by then, so I guess it wasn't worth much as a story.

It bothers me that in a few days 20,000 people - somebody's cousins, uncles, grandmas, daughters - were slaughtered and most of the early stories focused on the safety of Europeans and Americans who were in that country when it exploded.

The gorillas, too, had to wait until those folks could be evacuated before they could get a headline.

Of course, the closest Seattle Times bureau is in Federal Way, which meant we had to depend on wire services and larger papers for stories.

The people who select and place news in the paper were worried about the quality of the reports coming in as the killing began.

Europeans dominated photographs. Most of the people interviewed in early stories were European or American, not Rwandan. Everything we saw, we saw through their eyes. It sent an unintentional message that those folks were more important than the many people dying around them.

There was no coverage on the scene in Rwanda that would make the carnage real for people on another continent in the way that stories about people in Bosnia make us feel for them as individual human beings, not piles of bodies by a roadside.

Most of the stories I see about Africa are written by people in London, Paris, Nairobi or Johannesburg. Journalists like a relatively comfortable perch (though many have defied danger to report on Bosnia, and everybody who's anybody was there for the big shows in Somalia and Iraq).

Africa is a big continent for a handful of people to cover. Reporters make a lot of phone calls to European or American diplomats, businessmen and aid workers. Often, it's their perspectives we get when we read about Africa.

I have to admit, Rwanda is not a place I think about every day. The only thing most people know about it is that it has mountain gorillas. What would a reporter stationed there do in normal times? Interview gorillas?

We have no sense at all of what normal life is like there or in many other parts of the world. I think that leads us to classify them by the things that happen when normalcy is disrupted.

And then we don't even get a good understanding of the disruption, because when something does happen, there's no one in place to make sense of it, at least as much sense as can be made of something like mass slaughter. We have to rely on parachute journalism - drop in, interview whomever speaks our language and write a story that explains it all.

(It's kind of like when the national press guys drop in here for some big event and write things about Seattle that have nothing to do with local reality. Or maybe like what you see on TV news in the evening.)

We get coverage by people who haven't got a clue about the place or the people. We go away feeling like we know something, but we don't really.

We don't really understand who the people are and why they are fighting. Stories during the first week of fighting have said simply that it is tribal. There was nothing until much later about the economic oppression and apartheid-like politics.

Eventually there will be more complete stories, but by the time those reports start flowing, most readers will have moved on to something else and taken many subtle impressions along with them.

The best story I saw on Rwanda ran a week after the chaos began. It included no Rwandan comments, but it at least had Rwanda itself as its focus. And it contained this comment from an Africanist in London speaking about the effect of previous reporting: "It makes all of us in the outside world feel so much less responsible. People tell themselves, `We can't do much more because all these savages want to do is kill one another.' It's infuriating."

Someone suggested to me the media and government emphasis on Europeans was natural. They're our political and trading partners. Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Does this mean humans are only worth what we can get out of them financially? Maybe 20,000 Rwandan lives are not worth much on the international exchange. Does that thinking affect the value we put on our own poor, or on people who happen to look like Rwandans?

We treasure the gorillas, and rightly so. Our concern about the fleeing Europeans is justified. But if we have drawn a line in our hearts that excludes some people based on our judgment of their worth, then we have truly diminished ourselves.

Jerry Large's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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