Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
Impeachment has swallowed the news whole. In a world beset by climate change, right-wing populism, and rising tides of immigration, the overwhelming issue in the U.S. media is the burgeoning Ukraine scandal and whether it will take down President Trump.
As compelling as the impeachment story is, there’s a danger that these other issues will be overlooked. In the long run, the fate of our planet is considerably more important than the fate of our president.
Last week I asked my Northeastern University journalism students to identify an undercovered story and to explain their choice. Some of what they told me was predictable; some of it was surprising. Greta Thunberg’s climate activism? Of course. Gender-neutral Barbie dolls? Who knew? (And how cool is that?)
What follows is a list of seven major stories my students thought should have gotten more attention. The rankings are mine, but the ideas are all theirs.
7. Climate change. The question of whether the world will still be inhabitable decades from now comes in last on my list simply because it did get quite a bit of coverage last week. A major United Nations report and Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Action Summit were both major news events. But even though those topics weren’t exactly undercovered, climate change might have been — and probably should have been — the top story of the week.
“The warming climate is killing coral reefs, supercharging monster storms, and fueling deadly marine heat waves and record losses of sea ice” is how The Washington Post summarized the new report.
By week’s end, The Boston Globe published a massive multimedia feature on how climate change is affecting Cape Cod. There seems to be little doubt that global warming has emerged as a major issue for the media. Even so, it should be treated as by far the biggest story of our time — and last week’s developments should have received more attention than they did.
6. The vaping crisis. As with climate change, there was no shortage of stories about the vaping crisis, which has led to unexplained illnesses and deaths across the country. President Trump is seeking to ban most types of flavored e-cigarettes. In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has imposed a four-month moratorium.
As with climate change, the vaping crisis would rank higher on our undercovered list except that it has in fact received a great deal of coverage. But has it been enough? Given how prevalent vaping has become, especially among young people, the story arguably deserves even more attention than it has received.
5. Gender-neutral Barbie. The toymaker Mattel announced last week that it would introduce a new set of gender-neutral dolls for, as The New York Times put it, “boys, girls and children in between.” The new line, called Creatable World, comes in different skin tones and hair styles and may be dressed any way a child likes.
“Toys are a reflection of culture and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll line free of labels,” said Kim Culmone, a Mattel senior vice president, in a statement on the company’s website. “Through research, we heard that kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms. This line allows all kids to express themselves freely which is why it resonates so strongly with them.”
In a culture in which it’s still difficult, even dangerous, to be transgender (as we will see below), Mattel has taken a major leap forward toward celebrating all kids.
4. Unrest in Venezuela. Several months ago, the rising opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was a daily news story. Then again, at that time the U.S. government was paying a great deal of attention to the unrest, with members of the Trump administration even suggesting that the United States might intervene militarily.
The White House has lost interest, and thus so, too, have the media. But the standoff between the authoritarian Maduro government and the opposition has not been resolved. As recently as late last week, the BBC reported that the U.N. Human Rights Council would investigate reports of violations, “including executions, disappearances and torture.”
It is often said that the U.S. press doesn’t cover the world; rather, it covers the United States in the world. The situation in Venezuela is every bit as disturbing as when the White House was interested in it. The media should cover it accordingly.
3. The right to be forgotten. The Court of Justice of the European Union last week issued a ruling that will have a significant, positive impact on free speech in the United States: the court ruled that European laws mandating the “right to be forgotten” could not be enforced outside the E.U.
The right to be forgotten requires Google and other search engines to delete information about certain people “when their privacy rights outweigh the public’s interest in having continued access to the information,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a U.S.-based free-speech organization. The court ruled that such laws cannot be enforced outside the E.U., which means that search results in the U.S. and elsewhere will remain intact.
“The ability of one nation to require a search engine to delist results globally would prevent users around the world from accessing information they have a legal right to receive under their own country’s laws,” said the EFF in a statement hailing the ruling. “That would allow the most speech-restrictive laws to be applied globally.” Thankfully, the European court decided otherwise.
2. Deal struck on asylum-seekers. According to the Associated Press, five European countries — France, Germany, Italy, Malta and Finland — agreed to allow migrants fleeing Libya to disembark from the ships that had rescued them. The deal, under which the migrants will be spread across the five countries, expires Oct. 8. But officials from the five countries hope other E.U. members will soon join them.
“Migrants aboard the Ocean Viking jumped in joy and relief after hearing that they will be allowed to disembark at the port of Messina, Sicily, a week after rescue,” the AP reported. “The 182 men, women, and children, including a newborn, aboard the humanitarian ship run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders were expected to arrive by Tuesday [Sept. 24].”
With massive waves of immigration from poorer to richer countries emerging as one of the defining narratives of our era, the five-nation agreement represented a rare, if temporary, piece of good news.
1. An “epidemic” of transgender killings. The New York Times last Friday published a chilling report: at least 18 transgender people, most of them women of color, have been killed in the United States since the start of 2019. The American Medical Association is referring to the killings as an “epidemic.”
Although the Times deserves credit for shining a spotlight on the violence, it should be noted that the story appeared on page 11 of the print edition — the very definition of undercovered. Nor have other news organizations given the story the attention it deserves.
The killings come at a moment when transgender people are more visible and mainstream than ever before. Unfortunately, that may be part of the problem, with LGBTQ activists saying that the killings could be in reaction to that trend. “The increased visibility is a signal for them that they need to double down in fighting back,” Beverly Tillery, executive director of the Anti-Violence Project in New York, told the Times. “We’re definitely seeing what we would call a backlash.”
The seven stories I’ve listed here are admittedly somewhat random. There were more chosen by my students that I could have picked from — an investigation by U.S. officials that found Syria used chemical weapons last May; the ongoing, nearly forgotten recovery from Hurricane Dorian; unresolved political stalemates in Britain and Israel; forest fires in Indonesia, perhaps related to climate change; EEE, a serious mosquito-borne illness that has broken out in parts of New England; and the news (OK, not exactly new) that U.S. cities are losing 36 million trees each year.
No doubt you could come up with your own list. The point is that it’s a big world out there. The media aren’t exactly ignoring these stories; everything on my list received some mainstream coverage. These days, though, you have to chop through the impeachment weeds to see what’s underneath. Let’s start chopping.
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