Media: Sad but True: Dead Britons Make Better Headlines Better Headlines Disasters Abroad Get Little Coverage Unless There Are British Casualties Involved

By Crawshaw, Steve | The Independent (London, England), February 16, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Media: Sad but True: Dead Britons Make Better Headlines Better Headlines Disasters Abroad Get Little Coverage Unless There Are British Casualties Involved


Crawshaw, Steve, The Independent (London, England)


TWELVE PEOPLE died in horrific circumstances in a single incident last week. You read all about it, you heard all about it. There was blanket coverage - photographs, graphics, special correspondents flown in, TV crews, the works.

Three hundred people died in horrific circumstances in a single incident last week. You may well have read nothing about it, unless you scan the news pages with care. The Independent carried a short story on an inside page; The Guardian and Daily Telegraph carried news-in-brief paragraphs; most papers did not mention the incident at all.

The difference between the two stories was simple. The 12 died in the French Alps. The 300 died off the coast of Indonesia when a ship sank in stormy seas. The avalanche, with a relatively small number of deaths, was a huge story; the sinking of the Indonesian ship, with its much larger death toll, was scarcely a story at all. The glaring contrast between the two stories - tiny death toll, huge story; huge death toll, tiny story - brought into sharp focus a familiar paradox. Victoria Brittain, deputy foreign editor of The Guardian, noted the grim irony but, as she points out: "I know the geographic shape of British newspapers." Broadly, at the heart of everything, is Britain; then comes Europe and the United States; then come the events on a distant stage. In the words of Michael Williams, executive editor at The Independent: "There are rings and rings. Anything that happens in Europe and America registers high on the news Richter scale... The news editor is interpreting the resonance for the reader. It's perhaps not how it should be, but it's how it is." What appears to be a story about "them out there" is partly a story about "us back here". In addition to the basic question of "where", there is the equally important question of "who". A key task for a news editor when scanning agency reports of a distant disaster is to check for evidence of dieu-et-mon- droit passport-carriers among the casualties, which could help propel the story on to the front page. Leonard Doyle, foreign editor at The Independent, notes: "The first question you are always asked is: 'Any Brits dead?'" Finding a local angle for readers has always played a key role when reporting far-flung dramas. According to newspaper legend, the sinking of the Titanic was reported on the front page of the Aberdeen Daily Journal as: "Aberdeen man lost at sea." The reality is not quite so obsessive. The Journal's main headline that day proclaimed: "Atlantic disaster." It was the sub- headline which was given over to the locally significant fact: "Aberdeen man among those lost." None the less, the spirit of the old Titanic story - it's the local death that counts, never mind all the others - holds true across Britain today. Even a not-dead Briton may be seen as more significant in a story than a pile of dead foreigners.

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