More than 1,200 killed in South Asian floods

Mapping disaster: Which of these stories have you heard the most about this summer?

As rolling coverage of Storm Harvey continues, millions more lives have been affected by devastating floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Why have you heard so much more about the first?

As the rain poured, streets filled with water. Lives were lost. People waded through waist-deep water, not knowing when they would return to the homes they had left behind. Even now, teams of rescue workers are desperately trying to help as many people as they can — but they know that it could take years to repair the damage done in the floods of August 2017.

This is the story in Texas, USA. But it is also the story in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The region has spent the last two weeks trying to survive the devastating floods of one of the worst monsoon seasons in years.

According to the United Nations, 41m people have been affected by floods and landslides in the region. At least 1,200 people have been killed. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been damaged. Around 18,000 schools have been destroyed, leaving 1.8m children without access to education.

Despite these vast numbers, much of the Western media — not just in the USA, but also European and Australian newspapers — have been focused on the disaster in Texas this week. When they have covered the floods in South Asia, it was often framed as a contrast to Storm Harvey (much like the story you are reading right now).

“We hope people won’t overlook the desperate needs of the people here because of the disasters closer home,” a spokesperson for the Red Cross in Nepal told The New York Times.

And yet the phenomenon is not unusual. For decades, academic research has confirmed that some deaths receive more media attention than others.

It is partly because readers themselves are more likely to follow stories which involve people who they can identify with, or which are physically closer to them.

“Overall, there is this concept of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims in the media,” journalism professor Jack Lule told The Atlantic back in 2014.

Water, water, everywhere

It is shameful to give similar tragedies such unequal attention, say some. A disaster is a disaster no matter where it takes place, and no life should be seen as worth more than another. And yet the media and the public treat them as if they are — perhaps because of cultural biases, or perhaps because the USA is so much richer. Whatever the reason, we must all try harder to care about everyone.

There are legitimate reasons for the differences, respond others. News is defined by what is surprising, and what affects people’s lives. In this case, it is more shocking to see a wealthy city, which can afford to invest in flood defences, submerged in water. Plus, Texas is an important region for oil, which means Storm Harvey could have impact on the global economy. It is not that journalists care less; it is simply the nature of news.

You Decide

  1. What do you think was the biggest news story this summer, and why?
  2. Should the floods in Texas and South Asia have received equal coverage in the West?

Activities

  1. We have already defined news as a story which is “surprising” and “affects people’s lives”. As a class, brainstorm other words and phrases which make a story newsworthy.
  2. Choose one of the disasters featured in the map at the top of this story, and write your own news report about it.

Some People Say...

“A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.”

Arthur Miller

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The floods in Texas have received extensive news coverage by Western news organisations, including in the USA and Europe. Although they have covered other disasters this summer, they have not always made the front page, or received multiple updates for days afterwards. At the moment, the official death toll in Texas stands at 38, while in South Asia it is an estimated 1,200.
What do we not know?
How many people have been killed in either disaster, how many homes have been lost, or how long the recovery will take. We also do not know why, exactly, people are more likely to read some stories rather than others. Some have attributed it to racism; class prejudice; the headlines or images the story uses; or empathy fatigue, when too much bad news causes people to stop caring.

Word Watch

Texas, USA
Although floods have begun to recede in some areas, explosions at a chemical plant in Houston yesterday sparked fears of toxic fumes.
Monsoon seasons
South Asia’s rainy season generally lasts from June to September. Authorities have confirmed that this years flooding is far worse than previous years. There are additional fears about crops which have been destroyed, and a lack of clean drinking water.
18,000 schools
According to Save The Children. The charity’s manager in India’s Bihar state told The Guardian: “From our experience, the importance of education is often under-valued in humanitarian crises and we simply cannot let this happen again. We cannot go backwards.”
Research
For example, in 1986 the public policy professor William C. Adams found that a 1976 earthquake in Guatemala (which killed 4,000 people) received a third of the coverage given to an Italian earthquake (which killed 1,000 people) on American TV news the same year.
More likely
Western journalists often report that their coverage of far away disasters receives far less traffic than Western disasters.

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