Time after time editors are given the horrible task of prioritising a story they consider to be most important. Questions they might check off the list could include: how many have died, or have been injured? We want numbers – BIG numbers. Where in the world has the crisis taken place? Is it somewhere in the West? The Global South? And how many more are likely to be affected? In other words, editors want to write the story that will sell the most. And this has certainly played out true throughout the ordeal of Hurricane Irma (and Harvey and Jose) occurring simultaneously with the floods in South Asia. But which humanitarian crisis has received more coverage, or need I ask? For a brief answer to this question, watch the short video below:
A week or more ago I came across Jonathan Freedland’s opinion piece in the Guardian, which verbalised exactly my thoughts on the media coverage of both crises. Indeed, he set out the scene of quizzing the reader to think about what the biggest humanitarian crises in the world currently is. Naturally, one might answer Texas. A short while later, one might hopefully think about the floods in South Asia” affecting people in India, Bangladesh, Nepal.
Several interesting things arise here. Firstly, if the death toll in South Asia is far greater than that of Texas, Florida and the Caribbean combined, why is it still receiving far less media coverage? In that case, we refer back to our editor’s checklist and cross out ‘numbers’ and tick ‘location’ because a crisis in the West is clearly far more news-worthy than one even further away from us, right? Location and regionality play an awfully large part in the presentation and delivery of our news.
Secondly, why am I inclined to say ‘Naturally, one might answer Texas.’? Seems to me like I’m also feeding into this media hierarchy as it has been so engrained within our media culture. With newspapers including the Metro and The I posting all over their front pages about Irma, not to mention online formats too, I was somewhat pleased to have read an extended piece about the people affected by the floods in South Asia in the New York Times.
The third most interesting part comes next. Freedland’s piece also goes on to highlight a third more prominent crisis: Yemen. And this is what further peaked my interest. Personally I had not even considered Yemen as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, considering the newest ones which had come to light, which again demonstrates my ignorance too.
In one of my modules this year, Humanitarian Communication, we touched upon the nature of reporting natural (or unnatural) disasters, so to speak. A key reading was a chapter from the book ‘Global Crisis Reporting: Journalism in the Global Age’ entitled ‘(Un)natural disasters: The calculus of death and the ritualization of catastrophe’ (Cottle, 2009), which focuses upon the social relations and power structures behind the way in which natural disasters are reported, including news agendas, which was referred to at the start of this piece. The chapter references Hurricane Katrina and Stanley as having “caused the fewest deaths and yet received far more media coverage than any other disaster.” Ring any bells?
“Of the six humanitarian disasters analysed, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Stanley caused the fewest deaths and yet received far more media coverage than any other disaster.” (Cottle, 2009)
Geopolitics within the media coverage of natural disasters is a tender and dangerous aspect within the web of power struggles and social relations of human suffering, as Cottle and Freedland have both clearly articulated. Perhaps we need to be less ignorant and read more thoroughly about the world around, I know that’s certainly my goal.
Cottle, S. 2009. (Un)natural disasters: The calculus of death and the ritualization of catastrophe. Global Crisis Reporting: Journalism in the Global Age. Open University Press.