Ethiopian Famine Averted

Among many of the titbits of useful advice I picked up as I worked my way through Britain’s regional newspapers was one that has caused me no end of trouble. “Rob,” one of the old hands at The Herald (I should point out this is a Scottish national paper – not a British regional paper) said, “The stories that you don’t write are just as important as the stories you do write.”
The job of a journalist, he went on to explain, is to sift through the assorted rubbish that arrives each day and work out what is true, what is important and what is news. Everything else could be passed over with a dismissive, “The Scotsman might do this tomorrow but frankly it’s bullshit,” to the news editor.
Sound advice. But it has been causing me problems as a freelancer sitting several thousand miles away from the foreign desk. The issue is that a quiet word in the ear of my foreign editor that such and such a story is rubbish, doesn’t stop some hotshot writer from London bigfooting me or another freelancer offering said story to the desk. Often the first I’ll know about it is reading my own paper online.
I raise this now because I deliberately haven’t written about the “impending famine” in Ethiopia. Charities have been taking journalists on junkets to view stick-thin children and talking up the crisis in terms of global warming and natural disasters. This was not enough for me. If I was going to write about an Ethiopian hunger I wanted to discuss the country’s expensive wars in Somalia, Ogaden and Eritrea, its abuse of human rights in Ogaden and its denial of drought. That was the way the to do the story properly.
Meanwhile a steady stream of wannabe Michael Buerkes was filing stories such as this, in my own paper:

Surprisingly, when The Times visited the region, the fields were alive with maize and most afternoons a warm rain fell. “Here the problem is acute,” said Jean de Cambry, the emergency co-ordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières in southern Ethiopia. “It is very surprising and very strange, because everything is so green. But food stocks at household level are empty or close to empty.”

Or this imaginative way of producing a famine story in the LA Times:

They call it the green hunger. Four-foot cornstalks sprout from rain-soaked earth, and wind billows fields of teff, the staple Ethiopian grain. Goats and cattle are getting fat on lush grasses — but the children are still dying.

Each time these stories appeared I would call colleagues to ask whether it was time to go to Ethiopia. Each time they said not yet – including one TV reporter who had just filed a harrowing account of children starving, but had to admit it wasn’t really as bad as all that. A day’s filming was canned because the area was too green.
So it wasn’t a massive surprise when I received the following press release from the Irish aid agency Goal:

Ann Bourke, one of the most experienced of GOAL’s field personnel, reported with optimistic news from Ethiopia today. Ann stated that the interventions of aid agencies such as GOAL, and fact that it has started to rain have had very beneficial effects on the famine in Ethiopia. Although it is too early to be sure, indications are that a major famine may have been adverted.

This is clearly great news for the people of Ethiopia. And it is still early days. And maybe it was the reporting and PR work by charities that averted a crisis. But at a time when fundraisers complain about compassion fatigue could it be another example of journalists putting their critical faculties to one side in favour of reporting a worst-case scenario peddled by NGOs with an interest in collecting cash? Did we jump when they cried wolf? I wasn’t the only Nairobi-based reporter who decided not to go to Ethiopia, only to see a colleague based on another continent file an “Ethiopia Starves” piece.
It all reminds me of another piece of advice I picked up at The Herald, where the editor was fond of shooting down stories in conference with a terse: “That might be what they say, but is it true?”