17 September 1996

Press Release


19960917 Luncheon Audience Is Told Advances in Technology Have Done Little to Enhance International Understanding

This is the text of an address given at Headquarters today by Secretary- General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to the Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial Scholarship luncheon:

Let me take up a concern that I am sure we have in common. It is the shrinking interest in international news. During the cold war years, it seemed that everything mattered -- no matter how small or far away. The threat of global nuclear confrontation compelled the media's interest. When those dangerous years were behind us, it was natural that nations wanted to turn towards their domestic agenda.

But in this process, something very important is being lost. There are far fewer "foreign correspondents" or overseas news bureaux. Editors and publishers say they cannot afford them. They say the public just isn't very interested in what's happening elsewhere in the world.

Of course, there still is a lot of international news. All too often it features only the most dramatic -- or the most horrible -- events. These still can arouse great interest and inflame the emotions of the public. But with the decline in sustained interest in international news, these big events lack context. Without continuous coverage of an issue or a geographic area, big news that suddenly bursts into the media is extremely hard to judge or to comprehend.

As a result, public opinion can become public pressure for action that is not well-founded. And then, just as suddenly as it came, the story is gone. Under these circumstances, even citizens who are determined to stay informed about the course of world affairs sometimes find it hard to do so.

We are facing a strange paradox. At a time of globalization that is unprecedented in human history, the knowledge of the average citizen about serious world affairs is actually diminished. People have more global

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information, but less global knowledge. They have a greater global awareness, but less global engagement.

The marvellous global television networks can be instruments to counteract this trend. But often they are the means not of carrying solid news of international affairs in a comprehensive way, but of transmitting material about the developed world to the developing world, rather than the other way around. They may serve to acquaint peoples or regions with each other through features, but not through sustained coverage of hard news.

The advance in new technologies, in satellite and cable broadcasting and in the Internet remains, to a large extent, a feature of the developed world. And these technological advances have done little to enhance our understanding of the problems and challenges facing the developing world. The telecommunications revolution has already had a profound impact on all of our lives. And yet today, we are in serious danger of turning our backs on the creation of a truly global society of communication and understanding.

The United Nations is being affected by this situation. We sit in what is perhaps the media capital of the world, but we face a daily struggle to ensure that our message is heard and reported fairly and accurately. As journalists, you face a daily struggle to ensure that serious copy is used and that coverage is not dominated by trivia and merely entertaining material. Unfortunately, this is a struggle we both appear to be losing, with important consequences. This process can only have a negative impact on diplomacy and international relations.

I am well aware that broadcasters cannot devote coverage to every issue or to every shade of opinion. But democracy and diplomacy have been ill served by the decline in coverage of international events. As a result, the public is simply not getting the consistency and depth of coverage that it deserves and demands. I know that you, as journalists with important stories to tell, often face a frustrating struggle to overcome the resistance or indifference of news organizations in this regard.

I am not calling for a return to some mythical golden age of journalism. Our challenge is to do all we can to convince both the public and the publishers that these times demand knowledge beyond the immediate and the sensational. If we can do this, we can begin to redress the imbalance in news coverage between north and south. We can help to create the kind of informed, engaged and inquiring society that the next century will need.

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For information media. Not an official record.