Top 5 under-reported stories of 2011

Kirti Monastery. July 2004.
Xuan Che

The “most under-reported” list. It’s a familiar trope, a standard end-of-year media creation, designed to entertain, provoke reflection and (frankly) enable us hacks to spend a few days with the family without leaving the news hole empty.

But think about it: the “most under-reported” list? How exactly do you go about researching that? Where do we find these supposedly-critical stories that “the media” neglected to cover? And how do you measure the neglect? It’s like buckshot fired in the dark.

That said, here’s our attempt to dredge up some critical items that you may have missed. Or that we may have given cursory treatment. Or that we just want to talk about some more.

The good news: a couple of these items are actually optimistic.

China debt crisis

Europe’s governments are so excessively leveraged that they can barely pay their bills. Likewise, debt threatens the future of America as we know it. But China? Yes, the specter of debt looms over China as well. In a nutshell, the key to avoiding a debt crisis is maintaining strong growth (which China has) while investing money smartly — in projects profitable enough that creditors can be repaid. The problem in China is that decisions aren’t entirely market driven. Government bureaucrats determine where the country’s wealth goes. And while markets sometimes lead to very bad outcomes (ie, the mortgage meltdown), bureaucrats can be even worse. That’s especially true when their bosses (Communist central planners) are more concerned about maintaining their power than about the virtues of individual projects. Over the summer, bean counters revealed that China’s debt problem looms somewhere in the trillions of dollars. That news largely went under-reported in 2011, but next year could see far more headlines on the topic. For more, check out this interview with Chinese debt expert Victor Shih.

Tibet is burning

Debt is by no means the only major problem that China’s leaders are grappling with. The country’s cohesion has also been at stake in recent years. In 2009, riots tore across Xinjiang, in northwestern China, triggered mainly by economic tensions between the Uighur locals and Han Chinese settlers from the east. This year, there was unrest once again, in the vast, ethnic-Tibetan highlands that account for a large portion of the country. There, a series of monks and nuns took the dramatic step of setting themselves of fire to protest against Beijing oppression. Now, parts of greater Tibet are on lock-down. What exactly are they upset about? Why would Buddhism holy people self-immolate? Read more here.

The end of AIDS is beginning

That amazing assertion was the theme of the Obama administration’s World AIDS Day event in 2011. The administration has vowed to create an AIDS-free generation. The news isn’t mere hype. Medical research has made enormous strides in attacking the disease. Three decades into the global pandemic, the results of clinical trials in 2011 are literally inspiring otherwise-staid scientists to stand up and cheer. The trouble is, funding isn’t keeping up with the medical progress. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS is out of money for new grants until 2014. “2011 was a landmark year for AIDS research and for the first time, the idea of eradicating AIDS, or lowering it to extremely low levels, seemed within reach,” according to Doctors Without Borders. “But none of this will mean anything unless governments and the Global Fund step up to fund the programs necessary to put an end to AIDS.”

A silent crisis grips the Central African Republic

Here’s another one from Doctors Without Borders, a group that is well positioned to detect far-flung crises: certain regions in the Central African Republic are engulfed in a quiet humanitarian catastrophe — worse than the crisis afflicting Somali refugee camps. What’s causing it? “Years of ongoing conflict, lack of medical infrastructure and the collapse of the mining industry,” according to the group. In some parts of the country, armed groups that operate with impunity are making matters worse. Read more here.

Media ignores everyday miracles

It’s a cliché to point out that journalists don’t write about the planes that land safely. Yet it’s also critical to remember that fact. There’s a huge amount of news that we don’t cover, because it just doesn’t work in our medium. We neglect the cars that don’t crash, the countries that don’t suffer earthquakes, and the harvests that are bountiful. Those just aren’t topics that demand our attention. Nor do they make good stories. Imagine tuning into the evening news and watching a three minute piece about an apartment building that didn’t burst into flames. The visuals would be kind of dull. But outside the boundaries of modern journalism lie some of the most important, under-covered stories: the marriages that prosper, the babies that are born healthy, and the medical care that we take for granted. With more than 7 billion people on the planet, there’s bound to be plenty of suffering and strife to occupy the media in 2012. But as we consume more and more news staring into our smart phones, we must not forget the everyday miracles that make life worth living.