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The disparities of disaster journalism

Published Aug. 24, 2010, in J-Source

By Claude Adams

In November, 1985, the CBC sent me with a TV crew to the town of Armero in Colombia, scene of an horrific mudslide that buried the town and 20,000 of its inhabitants. In the remorseless media hierarchy of human events, Armero was a middle-of-the-show disaster. An aerial shot, some failed rescues, a few anguished interviews with survivors, a government statement, and a reporter’s on-the-scene wrap.

But then we found Omayra Sanchez. Omayra was a pretty, 13-year-old girl trapped up to her shoulders in the mud and debris. For 60 hours, with reporters all around her, she waited to be rescued. She gave interviews, prayed, cried. Her image went round the world—an icon of heartbreak and tragedy. All rescue efforts failed. Then she died, of gangrene and hypothermia. Over the years, reporters who were there would forget Armero, but they would remember Omayra.

She taught me my first, and most indelible lesson about journalism and disaster: the anecdotal human experience will always command our attention. Josef Stalin predated modern electronic newsgathering, but in a twisted way he got one thing right: A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

For better or worse, we are all transfixed by the singularity, Omayra living and breathing and in close-up. Whether it’s a baby pulled out of the rubble of a Haitian earthquake, or a tourist who survived a tsunami, the “human interest” anecdote will inevitably trump the Big Picture story. It’s not good or bad, it’s just human psychology, and it’s also part of the complex algorithm of media disaster coverage.

This came to mind while evaluating the very uneven North American media coverage of the Pakistan flooding. Considering the scale of the catastrophe—as many as 17 million homeless, and perhaps many more facing a food crisis—why is the flooding getting so much less coverage than the Haitian earthquake?

After all, the scope of this act of God is heart-stopping. In a recent report, the Toronto Star’s Rick Westhead quoted an aid official’s description: “It’s like Ontario disappearing under water, and dragging half of Manitoba with it.” On the basis of geography alone, it should be getting a lot more attention.

But it clearly isn’t. As Al Jazeera English noted in a recent report, in the week after it happened, the Haiti quake filled 41% of the “news hole” in US newscasts. The Pakistan flood, meanwhile, attracted only 3%. I would guess that you would find roughly the same disparity in Canadian newscasts.

Many reasons are being advanced for this gross imbalance in coverage. Pakistan is far away and far less accessible. Fewer than 2000 people have died, while the death toll in Haiti approached 300,000. We’re in the dog days of summer, when nobody is watching television. Our viewers and readers don’t travel there, and it has a much smaller diaspora. Celebrities haven’t taken up the cause. We’ve become “tragedy fatigued” after Haiti, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the continuing calamity in Afghanistan.

We’re told that the narrative of Haiti that we carry in our minds—misery compounded by poverty, a lost ecology and bad weather—is perfectly consistent with the devastation wrought by the January earthquake. It’s an easy story to tell. Our narrative of Pakistan, however, is colored by a complex storyline of insurgency, regional conflict, corruption, the Taliban. Some commentators talk about an “image deficit”—a politically-tinged perception of Pakistan that influences both the flow of aid, and the allocation of resources by media organizations to cover the story.

Maybe we’ve become jaded by the optics of mayhem. In a 2005 assessment of how the media cover catastrophes, the International Red Cross noted that “sudden dramatic disasters like volcanoes or tsunamis are intensely newsworthy whereas long drawn-out crises (difficult to describe, let alone film) are not.” An earthquake’s damage is picturesque, in the strict sense of the word; a flood hides its havoc. It’s just a lot of water.

Or it may be something as simple as money. In mid-1990, while I was working for the CBC in London, northern Iran was struck by a massive earthquake that claimed nearly 40,000 lives. I argued that we should be sending a crew and edit suite to Tehran immediately. I was over-ruled. It had nothing to do with body counts or disaster algorithms.The National’s newsgathering budget simply couldn’t handle it.

How do we rationalize our inexcusable indifference to the ongoing war in the Congo, which in its body count alone—five million and counting, along with rape and the dispossession of millions more—far surpasses any other human outrage since the Holocaust? The answer: too hazardous to cover, too many layers, covering too vast an area, too complicated. (And not as eye-catchingly “newsworthy” as the plight of the mountain gorillas on the Congo-Rwanda border.)

But these, in the end, are all alibis. And failures of imagination. There’s a Haitian Creole saying: “Tou moun et moun.” All people are people. And every human story, told in close-up and in detail and with compassion, has the capacity to touch us and teach us, whether in Port-au-Prince, or a flooded Pakistani village, or a hill town in Colombia. Their stories help us understand how the world works, and doesn’t work. Plus it’s great television. In 1984, the CBC’s Brian Stewart traveled to a part of the globe few Canadians knew or cared about—the wilds of Ethiopia—and came back with famine stories that captured the world’s attention.

Newsroom culture has changed dramatically in 25 years. Journalists are no less compassionate, but they are tied to a tight bottom line. Often, decisions of what to cover, and not to cover, are linked to the Eyeball Imperative—how many viewers will this story attract? How can we deliver a more cost-effective newscast? If we accept that Eyewitness News and crime/celebrity/ground-zero mosque stories draw bigger numbers than serious international journalism, how does a flood in Pakistan fit into the new business model?

As the news assignment desk becomes more and more corporatized, the Omayra Sanchez stories in the distant corners of the world will go unattended, unwritten and unfilmed. That would be a loss for journalism, and for all of us.

Tag: claude adams

Pakistan in the disaster shadow
Aug 27, 2010 by David Milliken under Hot Topics, Insights
A few weeks ago we posted a Hot Topic button to our websites when it became evident that we were receiving news releases concerning the flood disaster in Pakistan. Initially, news releases from World Vision and the Canadian Red Cross moved over the wire. These were followed by various organizations announcing substantial donations to aid the stricken country.

However, the volume of content came nowhere near the deluge of news releases that crossed CNW in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. The floods have left an estimated 17 million people homeless in Pakistan, and one media report described the devastation “… like Ontario disappearing under water, and dragging half of Manitoba with it.” Canadians were quick to respond to Haiti – as evidenced by the sheer volume of releases on CNW – but the nightmare in Pakistan seems second rate.

Why? Claude Adams, a freelance journalists, documentary filmmaker and broadcast journalism instructor, offers a balanced and thoughtful insight into why Pakistan isn’t getting the news coverage. His essay, posted on J-Source, can be accessed here:

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Tags: claude adams, crisis, flood, Hot Topics, j-source, journalism, News, pakistan


Anonymous said...

Thanks for an eloquent and thought-provoking post Claude. Frankly I don't think there is a decent reporter out there who wouldn't welcome the chance to tell the story of an Omayra in the Pakistani disaster or anywhere else.
But in the case of the news business I think the fish stinks from the head. I have been gnawing on this problem since I first heard Ken Mallett at Global describe what he called the "Wog Index"...the more foreign the victim, the lower value an event has a news story. As cynical as this idea is, the fact remains that audiences relate to some victims more than others (which is why missing children and teenage white girls receive spectacularly disproportionate amounts of attention).
Money is also a factor. The CBC used to cover foreign news largely from small, cheap newsreels that would arrive daily in an onion bag from Viznews.
But satellites, video compression and the Internet have made foreign news coverage cheaper almost annually. Yet international coverage is in decline after a heyday marked by stories like Brian Stewart's Ethiopia triumph. Right now network television news is in a spiral of decline as the medium fails to capture audience interest in an increasingly fragmented landscape.
In increasingly desperate attempts to capture audiences, those in charge of the most intrinsically powerful medium, television news, have decided that reaching out to emotional responses and gut reactions is the best way to cling to ratings. The success of Fox News is believed to be an example that this strategy is not entirely wrong.
Of course the networks are killing the goose in search of the golden egg.
The disaster in Pakistan is biblical in scale. It provokes important questions about western strategic interests and global warming in addition to the human dimension.
In a race to pander to the most primal audiences, television news is alienating its natural audience, relatively prosperous and sophisticated viewers.
As long as this goes on, ginned up controversies like the NYC mosque debate will trump the plight of tens of millions. Circuses and emotional spectacle always win in among managers who are looking for a quick ratings fix.
I'm afraid we need a new paradigm for television news and new leadership to find something better than the Fox-style Punch and Judy show, and the missing white girl whodunnit that currently dominates the airwaves.
Fortunately things are moving very quickly. I trust that a better model for news coverage will emerge but it may take the near collapse of traditional broadcast news to bring about a lasting change. (IMHO)

Claude Adams said...

Thanks, chinamoneyman. Your adroit comments inspired a revised wrap to the story.