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PHOTOS OF RWANDAN KIDS COULD BACKFIRE

SHARE PHOTOS OF RWANDAN KIDS COULD BACKFIRE

At least half the pictures in both print and TV coverage of the Rwandan refugee crisis have been of children. Starving and exhausted children also more often than not are pictured in the foreground of those incredible scenes of crowded squalor and of mass burials.

News reports tell us thousands of children wander alone and aimlessly through the refugee camps. But the reason so many are pictured is not simply that they are a big part of this horror story but that photographers search for the most vivid scenes that engage our empathy. It's not surprising that the picture in a CARE newspaper advertisement urging immediate medical assistance for the refugees is of a gaunt child gripping the hand of an adult.These pictures have great power to evoke our sympathy and our action. A danger, however, is that when they become a torrent their power is not strengthened but diluted. They become journalistic artifices and ultimately cliches: the father carrying a child on his shoulders, naked children lining up for food, the child crying by the body of his mother. When readers see them as trite, will these photos become counterproductive? Will we become as indifferent to death as those victims have become?

The Rwandan story is compelling enough in and of itself. Newspeople do not have to milk it for pathos.

BUT THANK GOODNESS the Salt Lake papers have not been so timid as to try to sanitize the Rwanda story as told in pictures. In the couple of dozen news service pictures each of the Salt Lake papers gets each day, there is an overwhelming emphasis on death. Overall the papers have made their selections from them responsibly, sensitive to the need to tell the story without acting like scavengers.

The Deseret News has a policy against showing bodies but departed from it to carry such a photo in its Extra section on Rwanda. The Tribune led its World section July 21 with a four-column, full-color picture of Rwandans "braving the stench of a mass grave to look for dead kin" in Goma but did not belabor these shots. As Deseret News photo editor Tom Smart puts it, "You can never really show death tastefully, but some pictures are more graphic than others. We try not to run those that are terribly offensive, but it's our responsibility to give a true picture of events."

IN FOCUSING ON CHILDREN, photographers and editors follow a strong journalistic heritage. Accidents that involve children always have been more likely to get photo coverage than others because so many people are parents and most adults have a strong vicarious interest in children's welfare.

Disaster pictures that become classics and win prizes often feature children. The most famous war picture of all time and a metaphor for the "rape" of China by the Japanese in the late 1930s is of a Chinese baby crying alone in the rubble of Shanghai (it is said that the photographer borrowed the baby and set up the picture). Another one almost as well known is the shot of the naked Vietnamese girl screaming down a street in Trang Bang after a napalm bombing.

The South African photographer Kevin Carter won this year's Pulitzer Prize for a picture of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese girl crawling to a feeding center. Carter died a suicide last week. In his obituary the New York Times and Time magazine both reprinted the picture. Carter was criticized for thinking first of making the picture, only then of the girl. But the Times said that reaction to the picture when first published was "so strong that the Times published an unusual letter to the editor on the fate of the girl. Mr. Carter said she resumed her trek to the feeding center. He chased away the vulture. Afterward, he told an interviewer in April, he sat under a tree for a long time smoking cigarettes and crying."

In 1984, Tony Suau, then a Denver Post photographer, won the Pulitzer for his pictures of the starvation in an Ethiopian refugee camp. The centerpiece of his prize-winning photo layout, and the picture much later featured on the cover of Newsweek, was of a starving baby trying to suckle at its mother's breast. The cover lines were chillingly like those on today's covers, "the closest thing to hell on earth." It was not until a year later, when television exposure made Ethiopia a world concern, that Suau was able to sell his photos to the national market. Until then, jaded editors dismissed them "as just more pictures of starving African kids."

THE RWANDA STORY is a classic example of "fire brigade" reporting. In the syndrome, reporters rush in to cover an inflamed area that suddenly bursts on the world's consciousness, then rush out as soon as the story becomes quiescent.

The focus of a marvelous Hodding Carter public television "Inside Story" special on African news coverage in 1986 was on how neglected the ongoing, day-to-day story of black Africa is.

Carter showed how less than 1 percent of the year's network news stories dealt with black Africa, and almost all were on disasters - the "coups and earthquakes" pieces. Some of those he interviewed, including not only black leaders Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson but also some network correspondents, said that the massive coverage of the Ethiopian famine may not have contributed anything to our real understanding of the Third World. They regretted that American media regard Africa only as a remote continent afflicted with multiple ills.

A number of critics also have complained that the Ethiopian crisis quickly receded from conscience because of our ingrained racism. Young suggested that there is no market here for African stories because the majority of American listeners and viewers don't know enough about Africa to demand it - "but that is nothing new; the media don't report the black community in the United States either except as a community in crisis."

THE EXODUS OF PEOPLES worldwide who are starving, oppressed, abused, afflicted or just looking for a better life is a phenomenon the current issue of Focus on Germany, a German government publication in English, discusses this month.

The migration of 200 million people from their homes since World War II is "a new exodus," the magazine says, not yet appreciated in its full complexity by the media.

The media have "scarcely noticed the despotic regimes and the conflicts and civil wars that produce refugees because most of the refugees live not in the wealthiest but poorest countries." The article points out that Malawi has taken in more than a million civil war refugees from Mozambique, a number equivalent to 10 percent of its own population.

Only now, the magazine says ominously, has a long-predicted new wave of people fleeing south to north truly begun. It implies that the media ought to begin paying more attention.