ON MONDAY night on ABC TV, a few moments of footage allowed an excruciating insight into the power that is entrusted to the media.
Four Corners reporter Liz Jackson was in a hospital in Sukkur, Pakistan, where the human misery from catastrophic floods continues to rise, six weeks after the rains started.
A crowd of women have brought in their desperately sick children, jostling for the overburdened doctor's attention. When Jackson arrives, they stand back and wait, their babies in their arms.
To any reporter who has witnessed acute need in the developing world, it is a familiar, discomforting scene. Crowds part for the Westerner with the notebook and camera, who is taken to see the people with medicines, food, water, authority.
The first time I experienced this, in a community in the grip of famine in Malawi, I was appalled and shamed.
I tried to retreat, to insist the doctors tend to their duties ahead of my questions. The mothers would have none of it. If my ploy was to escape the burden of their expectation, it backfired utterly.
The camera records Jackson doing what we do in such circumstances - she plies the doctor with questions on behalf of her distant audience. Where have these children come from? (The nearby camps, housing some of the 6 million people flushed from their homes.) Why are they sick? (Diarrhoea, dehydration - consequences of diseases festering in the water.) How many are sick? (The doctor struggles to guess.)
A woman in a crimson scarf cradles a tiny girl in pink. The girl's body is limp, her eyes wide and empty. The reporter keeps questioning, the doctor keeps answering, and the little girl is dying.
She stops breathing. The mother carries the tiny body and summons all her ragged dignity. She tucks swaddling gently around her daughter's face, anoints her fingers with water and closes those empty eyes.
HOW TO HELP
The doctor knew this baby was very sick. Maybe he knew he couldn't save her. Certainly he understood he could not save all infants being brought to him, more every day. So he invests precious minutes with Jackson in the hope she has more capacity than he to save some lives.
The mothers are caught in a similar thrall. They can't know the strange appetites of the global media machine. They perceive visiting reporters as powerful - emissaries to the wealthy world, a conduit for their pleas.
At one level, their faith is not misplaced. Jackson's raw, wrenching report was broadcast. Aid agencies logged a subsequent spike in donations.
Similarly, when ABC radio devoted a weekend to a Pakistan floods campaign, the initially lethargic public response sprang to life. Pledges to UNICEF went from $550,000 to $3.5 million. An article in The Age a week ago brought another spike. A photograph first published by Britain's Guardian newspaper - of babies in the camps covered in flies - triggered a storm. Australian donations to the UNICEF appeal are now $5.5 million. Other agencies tell similar stories.
The lesson is that people pay attention to news of disaster. Some switch off, but many respond. News coverage of disasters is not just critical in enlisting civilian support, it underwrites the response of governments.
In 2007, Swedish economists looked at the influence of mass media on US government disaster relief. Reflecting on the lessons from 5000 events over 35 years, they conclude that relief depends on arbitrary news cycles, and whether the disaster occurs at the same time as other events - say an Olympic Games. ''Relief decisions are driven by news coverage of disasters,'' it found.
In Australia, a University of Melbourne examination of both private and government disaster response also identified media coverage as a critical factor.
Disaster victims have always been hostage to the fragile whims of media attention. But now they face another obstacle to their stories finding their way into the world, as commercial news models endure a tsunami of their own in terms of relevance, reach and revenue.
The perceived wisdom of editors and producers is that there is little market appetite for bleak news from distant places. The response to appeals by donors indicates this is not necessarily so. It may be a question of the story-telling rather than the story.
In the six weeks since the Pakistani floods began, Australia's major newspapers have put the story on the front page just four times (once in this newspaper). By comparison, the Pakistan cricket match-fixing scandal has had 14 appearances on front pages. It's an imperfect measure of interest, but a telling one.
In terms of human impact, we have never known a disaster of the immensity of Pakistan's floods, according to the United Nations. It eclipses the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and the Haiti earthquake combined - not in the death toll, but in the toll on lives. Some 21 million people have been profoundly affected, with consequences which will reverberate through economies and across borders.
Yesterday, the new UN humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, called for a new way of thinking and responding to mass catastrophe. The ambit must extend to jaundiced editors, to recognise both their obligations to women such as those in Sukkur, and their immense power in the cycle of need and response.
Jo Chandler is a senior writer at The Age