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Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times is screaming at you

Malnourished children in Somalia

To pay attention to the massive catastrophe still unfolding in the Horn of Africa!

Traditionally, at least within the mainstream media, journalists are supposed to behave as if they are neutral observers. It’s a crock, of course, since we’re real people full of all sorts of opinions, emotions and thoughts. The best we can do is be fair and try to present all sides.

Jeffrey Gettleman covers the famine in East Africa, mostly Somalia, for the New York Times. He does an excellent job.

Here’s his latest article, Somalia Agony Tests the Limit of AID.

I think this story is also testing the limits of Gettleman — to maintain (the pretense of?) objectivity. It’s not labeled “analysis,” but you can feel his anguish throughout. He is shocked by the death and misery, outraged at how little attention and money this famine is getting relative to the human toll it is taking:

My job is to seek out the suffering and write about it and to analyze the causes and especially the response, which has been woefully inadequate by all accounts, though not totally hopeless.

Gettleman starts his story with a visit to a hospital, where five children died during his visit. He reports ‘objectively’ about other deaths and describes how Islamist rebels have made a terrible situation worse. He talks about the history of instability in Somalia. Gettleman gives all the facts you might need to shrug your shoulders and say it’s too bad but what can I do? Here’s what:

But support — meaning dollars — has been frustratingly scant. While many more lives are at stake in Somalia’s crisis, other recent disasters pulled in far more money. For instance, Save the Children U.S. has raised a little more than $5 million in private donations for the Horn of Africa crisis, which includes Somalia and the drought-inflicted areas of Kenya and Ethiopia. That contrasts with what Save the Children raised in 2004 for the Indonesian tsunami ($55.4 million) or the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 ($28.2 million) or even the earthquake in Japan earlier this year ($22.8 million) — and Japan is a rich country.

Gettleman is clearly outraged, at what he’s seeing, at the local politics that contributes to this tragedy and at the international community’s “inadequate” response to this stunning loss of life.

It’s good journalism, but mostly because it’s not at all objective or neutral. It’s real.

One man reached out and jerked my arm. “Look!” he said, pointing to a small bundle in the corner of his tent. I peered in. It was the corpse of his 2-year-old son, Suleiman, who had just died….

It is important to remember that however plagued Somalia is, however routine conflict, drought and disease have become, however many Somalis have already needlessly died, Somalis are not somehow wired differently from the rest of us. They are not numb to suffering. They are not grief-proof. I’ll never forget the expression on Mr. Kufow’s face as he stumbled out of Benadir Hospital into the penetrating sunshine with his lifeless little girl in his arms. He may not have been weeping openly. But he looked as if he could barely breathe.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.