When I went to Bougainville last year to conduct research the region had officially been in a state of peace for a decade and yet the effects of the war were still obvious. A lot of this was physical: burnt out buildings etc; several parts of the island where there are still warlords operating; gun crime is common, even against aid agencies such as Oxfam (whose truck was stolen at gunpoint while I was there). Aside from these issues there was an obvious psychological aftermath as well.
The people who had been adults when the fighting started in the late 1980s seemed to have dealt with the trauma of the conflict through a variety of ways, including traditional reconciliation ceremonies (check out the documentary Breaking Bows and Arrows if you want to know more about this). However those who grew up in the decade of fighting have not been as able to cope and this has caused huge social problems. Violence, sexual violence, substance abuse, and anger and depression issues seem worryingly commonplace amongst the youth, and the older generation are painfully aware of this but do not have the capacity to deal with the scope of the problem. These children grew up seeing violence and suffering everywhere and now it has become part of their personalities.
So I’ve been thinking: who deals with PTSD and other trauma issues in post-conflict environments? Ex-combatants were offered counselling by church groups and international NGOs in Bougainville but there was not the resources to help civilians at the same time. Without addressing this issue the long-term security and prosperity of Bougainville is at risk, and I imagine it is similar in other post-conflict areas. Trauma has serious long-term consequences yet addressing it is much harder than the reconstruction of infrastructure and so on. Specialist training and a lot of time is required. Also, as a long-term issue it is harder to get internaional funding. Sadly there are a lot of places where people are suffering in the world and high profile cases get more aid for obvious reasons. The general public donates to causes based on what they know of them, and NGOs, IGOs, and states operate where there is pressure from the public to do so or there are other gains to be had. This sucks, but it’s hard to see it changing any time soon.
This raises more questions for me: how did the trauma of war affect the civilian populations who suffered during the world wars? How have civilian populations in places like Vietnam coped over time since they endured war? Is Bougainville particularly bad because of the nature of the conflict there (which saw it cut off from the outside world for years by a naval blockade) or is it representative of most post-conflict states? Are there any NGOs or other groups dedicated to addressing trauma issues out there?
Does anyone know the answers to any of these questions? I’d like to think Bougainville will pull through because there are a lot of amazing people doing amazing work, but the scale of the problem is immense and the resources at their disposal are, well, not so immense.
Obviously there’s a lot more going on in the world than can fit in an hour-long news show or on the front page of a website, so how do certain events become considered newsworthy and others not? There seems to be two common answers to this question: the mainstream view that stuff that makes the news does so because it is more important than stuff that doesn’t, and the leftie perspective that the stuff that makes the news represents the interests of powerful businessmen and politicians. I think both these arguments have merit in certain situations, but there’s other factors at play that don’t often get considered.
Firstly, the two commonly presented reasons for the nature of news coverage. Some events have a much larger impact on people’s lives and global politics than others, and these generally make the news over things that have a lesser impact. For instance an event like the Eurozone crisis receives much more global coverage than a constitutional crisis in Papua New Guinea because it can affect almost everyone on the planet through disruption of financial markets, lost jobs, currency fluctuations etc, whereas as interesting as the PNG crisis was it really only affects people who live there or have interests there. Fair enough then I guess. However, the statement that the news represents the interests of an elite is also broadly true – especially in how certain events are portrayed. The lack of coverage given at the time to such monumental events as the biggest conflict since WWII can only reflect the fact that there was no business or financial interests for the West to protect in this case and thus it wasn’t deemed important. But surely an event does not have to be influential on the people reading its lives for it to be considered newsworthy, or else why does Syria dominate the news? As horrible as the situation there is it doesn’t directly affect the lives of the vast majority of news consumers in the same way that the Eurozone crisis does. The 10,000 or so dead there sounds like a lot, but more people than that are estimated to have died on the island of Bougainville during the war there and I doubt many people have even heard of the place outside of the South Pacific. This will probably change when a movie about it starring Hugh Laurie comes out.
So importance to the audience generally and the interests of the “news-selectors” (to perhaps coin a phrase) are both factors in what makes the news, but they are not the sole determinants. One blindingly obvious factor is that there is always going to be a finite amount of reporting available even in our information-saturated internet age and so certain events will always be excluded. Similarly, it is easier to report from certain environments for logistical reasons and thus this influences the level of reportage. Ultimately though I think the biggest factor that people don’t realise is a version of the network effect. Once a news story starts to get attention other people hear about it and read about it, and then it begins to be perceived as important and gets more attention over time. If one website or news agency reports on an event its competitors will too because they will worry about missing a story and thus losing credibility. Some events will gain enough interest when they first occur to reach a critical mass and continue to be reported on, while others won’t get enough attention and will fall off the radar. At least in the internet age if you are really interested in a story you can look it up yourself, but the idea that the web would destroy traditional news providers seems to have been disproved. Most people are happy to be told what the news is, and won’t question why one thing is news and another is not.