Media and Natural Disasters

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Created Sunday, October 23, 2005

While this site typically does not provide coverage of natural disasters, occasionally, events are either of global significance, or involve a number of issues that result in some mention here. Unfortunately, I do not have the resources, time, or capacity to provide up to the minute coverage on natural disasters.

The mainstream media, when it does cover a major natural disaster, oftentimes does well at providing details of what happened, so I cannot provide anything extra here, typically.

Just the second half of 2005 alone seems to have witnessed a number of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, ferocious hurricanes, mudslides, floods, droughts, forest fires, failing crops, and more. Yet, we have had intense media coverage of some of these, but weaker or almost no reporting of others. Why is that?

While there are legitimate and practical constraints at times, when news outlets broadcast or print their world news segments, it seems the global stories selected are often based on local drivers rather than a drive for truly global coverage.

Below are just a few natural disasters that have occurred in the second half of 2005 which had a varying degree of coverage:

On this page:

  1. Pakistan and Indian Earthquake
  2. Food shortages in West and Southern Africa
  3. Typhoons in East Asia
  4. Devastating Hurricanes affecting Central America and the US
  5. Differences in media coverage
    1. Unintended Consequences
    2. Follow-ups on natural disaster recovery
    3. Limited type of coverage – context or deeper issues often missing
  6. What is the direction of the media?

Pakistan and Indian Earthquake

October 2005 saw a devastating earthquake in Pakistan, centered around the Kashmir region, which also impacted bordering regions in India.

The BBC reports that, Pakistan says 38,000 people died in the quake, 60,000 were injured and 3.3 million are homeless1. At least another 1,400 more people died in Indian-administered Kashmir. Pakistan says the quake will cost it $5 billion in infrastructure losses.

The area that has been devastated has been huge. In addition, the rough, mountainous quake area has made relief operations extremely difficult. Bad weather such as heavy rains and winds have also hampering relief operation. As a result, the total number of deaths is feared to double as an equal number of people die from cold and hunger in the aftermath as winter approaches. While a number of countries have donated to the relief operations2, the amounts being raised for urgent aid dwarfs the amounts that will be needed in rebuilding.

Pakistan’s military-led relief operations, not without its problems and criticisms, have been praised by some media. By comparison, the less-reported Indian relief operations have, according to the BBC, been poor3. However, Pakistan’s resources are limited, and despite repeated calls from authorities and international organizations, such as the United Nations for more help, little appears to have come urgently.

As a number of media outlets have reported, Pakistan, the UN and various organizations such as the Red Cross have said that only a fraction of the money pledged has been received4 and is an unusually slow response. More generally the international response has been described as wholly inadequate.

To be fair, thousands have not been reached because the region is very difficult to access. Yet, basics such as tents and blankets have also been in extremely short supply as the demand is great due to the sheer size of the disaster. (The British Channel 4 report linked to above in the previous paragraph also notes that of the 500,000 tents needed, only 36,000 have been delivered, but even with future tents pledged, there will be a shortfall of almost 200,000 tents.)

With such a devastating impact, intense media coverage is to be expected, no matter where in the world it is.

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Food shortages in West and Southern Africa

Across Southern Africa, some 12 million are, or will be, affected by poor rains and failing crops. Malawi has already declared a national disaster as almost half the population is threatened by food shortages5.

Some 5 million people will need food aid in West Africa6 (in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso) due to failing crops, locust infections, and poverty.

  • This did get a bit of media attention, but almost as if the world was caught off-guard, ironically when the world was watching the 2005 G8 Summit7 and Live 8 concerts, a key focus for which was poverty and other problems in Africa.
  • Almost not reported at all (typically), however, has been Western economic policies often pushed onto these African countries have made bad problems worse.
  • Devastating Structural Adjustment Programs8 for over two decades, for example, have meant many Africans cannot afford basic health or education. As the BBC did admit, Niger, for example, has a policy, encouraged by the Western world, of privatized health care so that it costs $14 (£8) for a mother to get a baby a medical consultation. That means almost no-one in the country can afford to see a nurse or a doctor.
  • Niger is rated by the United Nations as one of the most poorest countries in the world.

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Typhoons in East Asia

At the end of September 2005, a typhoon in Vietnam left hundreds of thousands homeless9 and without sources of income.

A few days later, at the beginning of October, another typhoon in China resulted in hundreds of thousands being evacuated10 from some areas.

(See Relief Web’s Asia Natural Disasters archive11 section for a list of many other such events.)

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Devastating Hurricanes affecting Central America and the US

  • Hurricane Stan’s immense devastation in Central America just a few weeks earlier than the Pakistan earthquake was less reported (though the number of lives lost were considerably less as well – not to minimize the importance of each life)
    • The BBC reported, on line, that almost 800 were killed, and the number could rise by another 2,000 in Guatemala alone12.
    • 1 million people were affected by floods, mudslides, and damaged or destroyed bridges13. 300,000 alone were in the Chiapas region of Mexico.
    • This was made worse by a strong earthquake in El Salvador measuring 5.8 on the Richter Scale, which followed a volcano eruption 40 miles south of El Salvador's capital of San Salvador.
  • The devastation from hurricanes Katrina and Rita14 were well covered (and the previous link refers to this site’s own coverage of that).
  • Hurricane Wilma, just a few weeks later, has battered Mexico again (this time hitting popular tourist destinations for Westerners). It is feared, at the time of writing, that it will make its way up towards Florida and up the east coast of the US.
  • Wilma adds to one of the stormiest years for the Caribbean region, fueling more discussion about climate change15.

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Differences in media coverage

Media coverage of disasters in 2005, and before, have varied considerably, with some disasters getting almost no coverage and others receiving a lot. The media is criticized for this by humanitarian organizations as well because of this, and yet these organizations also need the media to try and get their message out. The Red Cross noted a number of these issues in its World Disasters Report 2005:

Media coverage of the 26 December tsunami dominated headlines worldwide well into January – much longer than any other disaster in modern history. After the tsunami came a metaphorical tidal wave of donations. Aid workers worried that the tsunami would divert donor money and media attention away from the world’s hidden disasters.

Many aid agencies regard media coverage of the world’s crises as selective and stereotyped. But they still crave publicity, hoping it will generate more funding and attention for disaster relief.

Humanitarian media coverage in the digital age16, World Disasters Report 2005, Chapter 6, International Red Cross

While some smaller media outlets would no doubt be stretched trying to provide a lot of coverage for many simultaneous natural disasters, those listed above were not entirely simultaneous, and yet, the coverage of some of these disasters were less than others. For some of the global mass media outlets, it would not be hard to cover these pressing issues for so many people, especially as they clearly have sufficient resources.

There are a number of complex reasons, including ones we are accustomed to hearing, which the Red Cross also summarizes here:

News judgment reflects established criteria. News must be new. Editors sort stories by death tolls. Disasters that are unusual yet explicable, and that cause considerable death or destruction in accessible places which the audience is believed to care about, get covered. Baffling stories get less attention.

The commercial imperative has sharpened journalists’ quest for ratings. Today, TV news is part news and part entertainment. So it’s understandable that sudden, dramatic disasters like volcanoes or tsunamis are intensely newsworthy, whereas long-drawn-out crises (difficult to describe, let alone film) are not.

Humanitarian media coverage in the digital age17, World Disasters Report 2005, Chapter 6, International Red Cross

Places which the audience is believed to care about is an interesting point. Local interests therefore drive global news reporting for a number of reasons such as:

The impact to Western interests
  • Where western foreigners typically travel (e.g, the tsunami-hit areas, the Caribbean, Southern coasts of America, etc) there would no doubt be more coverage
  • Pakistan also happens to be of strategic interest to countries such as the US in their war on terrorism, hence there was a bit more coverage on the Bush administration’s response to the disaster.
  • The Red Cross, in the same chapter mentioned above, does acknowledge a study showing an increase in media coverage of aid operations. Despite NGOs’ concerns, a major 2004 study by Professor Steve Ross of Columbia University found evidence that media coverage of aid operations is increasing. The number of articles in English-speaking publications worldwide mentioning AIDS in Africa jumped from 3,607 in 1998 to 19,375 in 2003. However, one reason for the increase in AIDS coverage in recent years has been because it has also become a threat to the West and because in 2000 the US said AIDS was a threat to National Security. While it was a problem ravaging Africa only, it had less attention. (See this site’s AIDS in Africa18 section for more details on that aspect.)
The impact to a country’s own interest
  • Obviously media coverage from organizations in one’s own country will concentrate far more on disasters closer to home. Hence Central American media outlets reported more on the effects of hurricane Stan than say CNN or BBC did. Likewise, as a radio commentator in England noted (I can’t recall exact details of when and which broadcast, unfortunately), Britain provided more coverage of mudslides etc in a rural area of Britain where a small number of people were impacted, compared to coverage of disasters in Africa and Central America. On the one hand, that is to be expected, but on the other hand, and especially for the big, global mainstream media outlets that advertise their global outreach and trustworthiness, this does raise the question of how we relate to the rest of humanity; who is worthy of news and who isn’t; what global news really means, etc.
  • In the case of the Pakistan earthquake, Britain has many people from the South Asia region, including millions from Pakistan. Naturally then, coverage of the Pakistan earthquake is an important issue for British media to cover (though the British media apparently had to receive pressure from the ethnic Pakistani communities to provide more coverage, initially).
  • In the case of Hurricane Wilma, thousands of British and American tourists have been caught up in the destruction in Mexico’s affect tourist areas.
The dramatic nature of some recent natural disasters
  • The Asian tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, the effects of Katrina on the world’s most powerful country, are all issues that take people by surprise, and from a media angle, provide most sensational and riveting coverage.
  • By contrast, the famines in Africa hardly appeared to get coverage, perhaps because it appears to be an issue that keeps happening, and maybe the media feel that people are now desensitized to it, and they won’t get enough of an audience for their advertisers. Maybe the above criticism seems a bit harsh, but many feel this way.
  • Long drawn out conflicts have also received less attention even when the death toll dwarfs most others, as the Red Cross noted:

    [In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it was estimated that] 3.8 million people had died since 1998 from war, disease and malnutrition. Even so, coverage of the crisis remained patchy: one of the worst sins of omissi