I didn’t do my job
In 2008, Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete gave me a simple task. Six years later, I have yet to complete it. Now, the tragedy of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls is a reminder of my failures over the past several years.
I was part of a delegation attending an international summit in Tanzania when I first met President Kikwete. At that time, I was still working at CNN. During a conversation with the president, the question came up about the limited coverage we (CNN & Western media) dedicate to what’s happening in Africa. When I mentioned a possible lack of interest from viewers, President Kikwete stopped me. He refused to accept that as an excuse and instead emphatically insisted: “make them care!” I will never forget that moment.
Kikwete’s simple statement was at the top of my mind in 2011, when I walked into the New York office of one of CNN’s senior executives (he’s no longer with the network), and we argued about Africa. Specifically, I wanted to do an extended segment about South Sudan gaining independence. He was against it. “We shouldn’t spend too much time on stories that people won’t watch,” he argued. He attempted to placate me by explaining his philosophy this way: We have to cover the stories that get us ratings, and then, get in a story like South Sudan wherever we can.
This wasn’t the first or last time I’d had a conversation like this during my career. On countless occasions, my story or segment ideas were rejected because news managers and producers (and not just the white ones) thought the audience wasn’t interested, no matter how relevant, timely, or even interesting the story might be.
On a pragmatic level, it makes sense. The news business is after all, a business. But generally speaking, as a reporter, ratings aren’t my problem. My job, in large part, has always been to bring stories to the table that I think are important, fight to get those stories on the air, and then tell those stories to the viewers in a compelling way. News organizations shouldn’t pick stories based solely on what they think will get them ratings. But they also shouldn’t ignore stories based solely on a perceived lack of appeal. You have to try to strike the right balance when allocating airtime and resources.
Anger continues to grow over the anemic response from the Nigerian government and the international community after the Nigerian girls were kidnapped nearly a month ago. International media has also been the target of criticism for being slow to initially cover the story, but also for the relatively limited coverage. The criticism is warranted, and the coverage is not surprising.
If there was more diversity in editorial positions, stories like the one in Nigeria might have a better chance of getting the type of coverage they deserve. Yes, having more news executives, managers, producers, anchors, & reporters from varied backgrounds is great, but what good is it if those same people who are supposed to bring diversity of thought, interest, & perspective don’t utilize their access and influence?
During my career, I’ve been proud to bring attention to a number of stories that might not have otherwise seen the light of day or at least, would not have gotten significant airtime. But, there were also other times I could have fought a little harder in those editorial meetings and could have done more. Too often, I threw my hands up at what I thought was a losing battle to get a story I care about on the air, whether that story was about something happening on the streets and classrooms of America or in the bush of central Africa. In those instances, I didn’t do my job. Somewhere, someone didn’t do their job and fight hard enough to get those girls the kind of coverage that’s warranted.
Years ago, I wrote about my experience in Tanzania and President Kikwete telling me to “make them care.” I ended that column by saying I was working on it. But, all these years later, I have to admit to myself: I probably didn’t work hard enough.