Monday, January 03, 2005

Numbering the Dead

Numbering the Dead
Lessons in news judgment and empathy:

“In 1986, George Washington University professor William Adams asked "How do the U.S. news media prioritize the rest of the world?" He investigated how American TV networks cover disasters in one part of the world compared to other parts. He learned that the more the victims looked like white Americans, the more coverage they got.

In an interview for, Adams said, "The closer the countries are to being in our cultural domain -- the closer they are geographically and culturally -- the more media coverage they get. Deaths in Europe get more coverage than deaths in Africa, than deaths in Asia, which get little coverage."

Is that it? Is that why stories of mass devastation in other places sometimes barely make a blip on the American news radar screen? Is that why it is so hard to "get our heads around" what it means for 6,300 people to die in an earthquake, civil war or a flood in some remote place in the world, let alone hundreds of thousands who died in places like Rwanda (2,500,00 dead), Cambodia (1,000,000 dead), and Bosnia (between 60,000 and 200,000 killed depending on the source)?

As evidence, Professor Adams cited six earthquakes in six countries in 1976.

Guatemala in February, Italy in May, Indonesia in June and July, China in July, the Philippines in August, and Turkey in November. Here is how many people died in each of those quakes and how many minutes of coverage was recorded per 1,000 deaths on American news networks at the time.

CountryNumber of DeathMinutes of coverage/1,000 Deaths

"The disaster in the Philippines caused eight times as many deaths as the one in Italy but got less than half as much coverage," Adams said. Read the full report here:

The Asian Tsunami: Think Globally, Locally, Journalistically

The real question, of course, is “will this be the disaster that changes the way we value lives different from our own?” There is promise in all this horror. We, Americans, have as many people unaccounted for as September 11. Perhaps we're starting to realise that disaster befalls others, regularly on a scale that dwarfs our own tragedies. Maybe, our media will tell us about 100,000 dead Iraqis. I'll wait and see, but I won't hold my breath.
con·cept: Numbering the Dead