African journalist Sirdou Diallo was sitting at dinner in a suburban Boston home. He had often traversed Africa on assignment for the widely known weekly news magazine Jeune Afrique, but this was his first tour of the United States.
''Why,'' he asked his American hosts, ''do your news reports pay so much attention to Africa's calamities, but so little to the other profound developments across the African continent?''
The Western press will spotlight a seizure of power in Nigeria, or civil strife in Zaire, he said.
''But where is its coverage of the gas-liquification plant the Nigerians are building - one of the world's largest? Or Zaire's effort to build the largest hydroelectric infrastructure in the world, bringing electricity to a thousand-mile stretch from the Inga Dam to Lubumbashi? Or the spectacular transcontinental highway being built from Algiers to Mombasa, Kenya, over 3,000 miles away?
''And when it comes to the human dignity and humanitarianism, no one has a richer heritage than ours. But seldom does this come through the American press.''
It was a point well-taken by Mr. Diallo's American listeners, most of them specialists in African affairs. Some months before, few of them would have forecast that things would change for the better.
But now the wind may be shifting. That is, if the recent rumors blowing through Western journalistic circles are to be believed. There is indeed news in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And in time, the media may be bringing a lot more third-world news into American homes.
Whence cometh these reports of a freer flow of news from the third world? And why are some press-watchers so worried that the trends could actually inhibit the free reporting of world events?
Anyone looking for answers to these questions is likely to begin his search in Rome at an office whose existence seems to have totally escaped the American media. Here in an exquisite Renaissance building on a sloping street just blocks from the ancient Roman forum, is the headquarters of IPS, the Interpress News Service.
European news editors have long known of IPS. It was actually founded in 1965 by a tiny group of European and Latin American journalists wanting to provide a better information link between Latin America and Europe. Now the agency is an upbeat cooperative of writers in 50 countries, most of them professional journalists, who churn out news stories on all kinds of third-world issues that get picked up by papers around the globe.
Not surprisingly, IPS has become the leading advocate of greater global coverage of third-world news.
Walking into the IPS newsroom is like stepping into one of the lush command posts of Napoleon's Italian campaigns. The Renaissance building, with its parquet floor, reproduction Louis XV desks, frescoed ceilings, brass chandeliers , and tall shuttered windows, envelops this news-gathering operation in an ambiance perhaps best described as highly ''civilized.'' If it were not for the ever-present computer terminals, the 20th century might fade from view altogether.
''When an American president meets Brazil's president, that's news in both Brazil and the US,'' says Vic Sutton, a youngish, articulate Briton who coordinates IPS's relations with international organizations.
''But if the president of Brazil meets Surinam's president, that won't make the American papers, or even the wire services. It's this sort of missing reporting that we're trying to supply. And the demand is growing to have such events explained in the West, especially as the US gets more and more economically interdependent with the developing world.''
But the third-world news issue is not merely an offshoot of developing countries' wish to be better reported, Mr. Sutton and his colleagues insist.
''There's a growing awareness of editors,'' he says, ''that a (diversity) of news sources will be essential to grasp what's going on in the world.''
Is this just IPS selling itself?
''Let me illustrate,'' Mr. Sutton said. ''A Norwegian editor was just telling me about his frustration over the reporting of last year's summit in Cancun, Mexico, between the developing and developed countries' presidents. Most reports in the Western wire services, he said, were billing the summit as a giant success in North-South cooperation. But that couldn't have been farther from the perception of most countries there.
''The problem, it turned out, was that President Reagan's press conference was held at the same time the other leaders spoke. Western newsmen naturally gravitated to the leader of the world's most powerful nation. That meant that Tanzania's Julius Nyerere didn't get heard. India's Indira Gandhi didn't get heard. Even the host country, Mexico, didn't get heard.''
The answer, as IPS sees it, lies in creating a global information context in which news flows more freely from the third world itself.
Somewhat to the surprise of Vic Sutton and his colleagues, that solution is getting a wider hearing in the place where it was least expected - the US. In recent months the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University has been bringing together American journalists and diplomats to see how reporting on the third world can be improved. And in Baltimore, journalists who attended the mammoth global conference of the Society for International Development in August brainstormed with IPS executive director Robert Savio.
But the thrust for third-world news takes its most tangible form in a small, bright newsroom in the basement of the Church Center for the United Nations. Assisted by a half-dozen professional editors, a computer buff, and a host of bleeping, ticking computer hardware, American Brennon Jones is marshaling a computerized news service devoted solely to third-world events. Interlink, he calls it. Although not the same as IPS, it picks up their stories. The aim is to put stories written from, and about, the third world at the finger tips of local newspapers, universities, and private service organizations across the United States.
Interlink began by offering a weekly print service. It features eight to 12 stories sifted from the flood of news that crowds the IPS wire each week. Those and other stories are also now available via computer.
To get the computer service going, Mr. Jones teamed up with the Dialcomp time-sharing computer service in Maryland. At any one time, the Dialcomp computer bank will store 500 to 600 Interlink stories. For a fee, any newspaper, university, or private organization with access to a computer can plug into the data bank and pull out news on timely third-world subjects.
Jones himself looks the quintessential bespectacled ''new age'' newsman - sleeves perpetually rolled above elbows, round wire-rim glasses, sandy hair parted down the middle and dashed back at the sides, necktie pulled down to a comfortably loose level.
He got his first exposure to third-world news back in the late 1960s and early '70s while studying the effects of the Vietnam war on Vietnamese and Americans for the National Council of Churches. He later collaborated with CBS on an Emmy-award-winning documentary on the war. Then he served as an issues analyst at Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger lobbying group, and this year took on the task of launching Interlink.
''We think our service will pick up the slack from the declining number of American and European reporters stationed abroad,'' he says. ''We're providing continuous coverage of what's going on in these countries, coverage often bypassed now out of sheer economic necessity.
''Some 25 major papers take either the print or computer service of Interlink , including The Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, Newsday, the Atlantic Constitution, and the San Francisco Examiner. The growing list of service organizations subscribing to the computer service span the gamut from Amnesty International to the National Council of Churches and the University of Iowa.
Four other independent third-world news agencies are piggybacked on Interlink's computer service: the London-based publicatons South/Third World Media Service and Earthscan, an environmental news service; the Hong Kong-based technology journal Asia 2000; the Southeast Asian feature service Depth News, published out of Manila; and the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment.
All of this will not instantly mean more stories from developing countries showing up in your local hometown newspaper.
In fact, to date few papers are picking up the Interlink stories for direct publication. At this early stage editors appear to be using Interlink mainly as background and as a source of story ideas for their own reporters. In time, Jones hopes, Interlink materials may show up in more and more American papers.
But some American editors have serious reservations about the reliability of news being reported out of third-world countries by foreign reporters. Others say many Interlink stories are simply not written colorfully enough for publication.
Still others see Interlink as one more bone of contention in the so-called ''new world information order'' debate.
In general that debate has not focused on getting more third-world news into the industrialized West, but on who controls third-world information. Developing countries want more self-sufficiency in producing news for and about themselves, less dependence on Western news agencies for the news they receive.
When developing countries pressed the world community for money to support that self-sufficiency, some Western countries balked. The US, for one, saw the drive for a new international information order as a thinly veiled attempt of third-world governments to stifle free reporting in, and about, their countries.
Given the explosiveness of the debate, it was inevitable that Interlink would get caught in the verbal crossfire.
''I agree that the flow of news coming into the US about the third world should be improved and broadened,'' says Leonard Sussman, executive director of Freedom House in New York and a critic of various United Nations efforts to promote a new international information order.
''But I also try to watch the political implications of some third-world information passing as news these days.''
Not a little of that news, he argues, is inspired, sponsored, or managed by governments of the developing countries. If so, he says, it should be labeled for the type of information it is.
''Also, as I read materials coming into the US from the third-world reporters , it seems that development problems are often discussed from the standpoint of the need for outside aid - almost never from the standpoint of who within these countries is responsible for their problems. Maybe a country's problem wasn't caused by colonization of an outside power, but by the corruption of leaders who took over after that country's independence from colonial control. Such issues almost never come through in these stories from the third world.''
Some third-world journalists, for their part, claim to be as resistant to government interference as are Westerners.
''Every day we are waging combat against government attempts to interfere with the new information order and gain control over the information flow,'' says Mr. Diallo of Jeune Afrique, a French-language magazine.
''Not a week passes that I don't have to deal with telephone calls from African heads of state or high officials complaining about some article we wrote about them, or how they looked in a photograph. Our magazine has not been sold in Algeria since 1977, because we don't have the same view of the Saharan controversy as the Algeria government - a very serious blow for us, because we had one of our largest circulations in Algeria.''
Brennon Jones, for his part, is trying to address the critics' concerns by staffing Interlink with editors experienced in the Western journalistic tradition.
He also questions the sincerity of US criticism of IPS at a time when almost all US aid to third-world journalism has gone to government-controlled agencies.
And in any case, he says, other stakes are getting overlooked in the dissemination of third-world information in the West.
''We want to expand peoples' understanding of this debate by involving the private service organizations and universities more fully, encouraging them not only to use the third-world news service, but also to communicate about it with each other via the computer system,'' he says.
''This would expand the number of voices supplying third-world news and talking about it. And that goes to the heart of what the information debate is all about.''
Meanwhile, if the third-world-news enterprisers are right, the demand from developing peoples to be better understood will be a global fact of life for decades to come.
The question is: Will the West respond?
''Speaking as an outside observer,'' says Siradou Diallo, ''I would think that Americans would actually want a more profound comprehension of what's going on beyond their own borders. Even our European colonizers made a far better effort.
''But today's effort must transcend past attempts to dominate third-world peoples. We need to establish healthy relations between equals.''