"Regarding the Pain of Others": Media, Bias and the Coverage of International, Disasters

Article excerpt

Over the last two years the world has had a surfeit of disasters. Everywhere one turned there were new photographs of bodies lined up so relatives could come and claim them. In October 2005, the images of covered corpses, stunned faces, keening mothers, tumbled homes and nature gone awry resulted from the South Asia earthquake. In August, the global tragedy was Hurricane Katrina, where the bodies the world saw weren't under rubble but floating in New Orleans' toxic flood. In July, the casualties were British; grainy cell phone photos carried viewers into the very moment that terror struck the London transport system. In December 2004, the sprawled bodies in awkward, disconcerting color were the child and adult victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Three months earlier, in September, the translucent corpses of children were from the school siege in Beslan. And virtually every day--should one have troubled to look for them--one could find photographs of the human and other wreckage of another suicide bombing, or three, in Iraq.

But not all of the crises of this past year or so have equally commanded the attention of the world and its cameras. Some disasters have had the bad luck to occur at a moment when a more telegenic disaster was already capturing global attention. The worst tragedy in Iraq in 2005 occurred on 31 August. At the same time that flood waters were sweeping over New Orleans, up to one million Iraqis walking to a Shi'ite shrine in Baghdad stampeded when the rumor that there was a suicide bomber in their midst swept through the crowd. Almost a thousand people died and nearly five hundred more were injured.

Then there were the mudslides in Central America. "I have never known an emergency become forgotten as quickly as Guatemala's, where 120,000 people have been made homeless, on the very day it came to the world's attention," recalled Toby Porter, emergencies director of Save the Children UK. But that was the same day that the earthquake shook Pakistan and India. "A country hit by a volcanic eruption, a hurricane and then devastating mudslides would in any normal week be considered a major emergency," mused Porter. "But this is not a normal week--or year.... " (1)

Other crisis stories have played even more poorly in the media. "Terror" remains the vital "bete noir" of President George W. Bush's administration, but even significant acts of terrorism abroad made but a blip on the American media radar--they made the news the day they occurred, but they were given little more attention than that: the November 2005 Al Qaeda attacks--what Jordanians have called their "9/11"--on three hotels in Amman that turned a wedding reception into a morgue, killing over fifty and wounding almost two hundred and fifty; the series of explosions in Bali at the beginning of October that killed twenty people and left perhaps one hundred injured; the July car-bombing of tourists sites in Egypt that killed almost ninety and wounded more than one hundred; and the Valentine's Day car-bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and twenty others in Beirut. (2)

And some crises of unimaginable proportions still go unreported; the number of threatened or killed is not a solid predictor of coverage. The media have covered some of the most devastating disasters sporadically: the genocide in Darfur that has displaced 1.2 million people and killed hundreds of thousands; the famine in Niger that currently threatens 2.4 million people; the seven-year-long war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has killed 3.8 million and in which the International Rescue Committee estimates another 31,000 die monthly. (3)

Other global disasters are in such a state of stasis that the media have effectively ignored their numbing devastation: the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa that has orphaned an estimated 12 million children and that has afflicted approximately 25 million, tuberculosis that kills 2 million a year and the easily vaccinated measles which kills almost half a million children every year. …