Indonesia rocked by earthquake catastrophe

Ruin: Rescuers using heavy machinery to reach victims trapped in a collapsed mosque.

Are media reports of natural disasters unfair? At least 98 people have died in a deadly quake in Indonesia. Hundreds of tourists evacuated. Meanwhile, famous faces were caught in the chaos.

At least 98 people were killed, hundreds more injured, and countless others are still missing after a major earthquake struck Indonesia’s Lombok island.

The quake measured 6.9 on the Richter scale, with officials describing “massive” amounts of damage: “I saw about 80% of the houses, [and] 80% of the buildings had fallen down or collapsed,” said aid worker Endri Susanto.

Many of the victims were killed by debris falling from buildings, with survivors describing chaotic scenes: “Everyone immediately ran out of their homes, everyone is panicking,” a resident told AFP.

There have been more than 130 aftershocks since the quake struck on Sunday morning, and rescue efforts are being hampered by damaged roads, blackouts and collapsed bridges.

As well as the devastation wrought upon locals, reports also focused on the many tourists caught up in the disaster. Video footage showed hundreds of foreign visitors crammed on a beach on the nearby Gili islands, waiting for boats to take them to safety.

Also among the visitors were singer Gary Barlow and celebrity model Chrissy Teigen. The latter even live-tweeted her experiences of the earthquake, making posts such as “Bali. Trembling. So long,” and “I’m either still trembling or these little quakes won’t stop.”

Media outlets quickly reported on Teigen’s tweets. But in a later post she urged people not to forget the wider story: “Please don’t make any more news stories mentioning us. Talk about those in danger and share information to help those in need.”

For some, this focus on foreign tourists or the experiences of one celebrity are symptoms of a wider problem: when it comes to natural disasters, not all events are reported equally.

For example, one study found that, on average, a natural disaster striking in Europe only needs to cause one death to receive media coverage. A disaster in Asia must kill 43 in order to make the same impact. The same study found that only 13% of Asian natural disasters are covered in the first place.

Is reporting of natural disasters unfair?


Of course, some argue. In the coverage of the Indonesian earthquake there was a disproportionate focus on tourists and celebrities — rather than on the Indonesian people who suffered much more. This only perpetuates dangerous attitudes in which people value the lives of people “like” them more than others.

This bias is natural, others respond. Reading about disasters through the experiences of Western tourists brings us closer to the story, raises awareness, and can encourage people to help. For example, one Vogue article used details of Chrissy Teigen’s experience to encourage readers to donate to the Indonesian Red Cross.

You Decide

  1. Is it natural to be biased?
  2. Would you visit a country where there is a high risk of earthquakes?


  1. Imagine you work for an aid organisation. Compose a tweet persuading people to donate to an appeal to help the victims of Indonesia’s earthquake.
  2. Read the Vogue article in Become An Expert. How does the piece use language to interest the reader? Do you think it is a useful or appropriate way of reporting on the earthquake? Why/why not?

Some People Say...

“We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Earthquakes are common in Indonesia because the country is situated on the Ring of Fire — a region of intense tectonic and volcanic activity that stretches across almost the entire Pacific Rim. This most recent earthquake occurred just one week after another 6.4 magnitude quake hit the region, leaving at least 15 people dead and 162 injured.
What do we not know?
What the final death toll will be. On Sunday, a government spokesman, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, told a news conference that the death toll will “definitely increase”. So far, all those who have been announced as victims have been of Indonesian nationality. We do not know if there are any foreign nationals among the dead.

Word Watch

Lombok island
The island has a population of more than three million and is popular with tourists. Indonesia is comprised of over 17,000 different islands.
Richter scale
Measures the severity of earthquakes on a scale of 1 to 10. Any earthquake that measures between 6 and 6.9 on the scale is categorised as “strong”.
A smaller tremor that follows a bigger earthquake.
For example the Guardian piece in Become An Expert reports on the disaster from the perspective of British tourists.
Gili islands
Three tiny islands characterised by white sandy beaches and coral reefs. They are extremely popular destinations for tourists.
She was holidaying with her husband, John Legend, and their two children.
By Thomas Eisensee and David Strömberg. Read about their findings by following the Our World in Data link in Become An Expert.
Media coverage
Figures based on American news coverage.
By contrast, 18% of European disasters were covered.

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