Andrew Stroehlein

Why the Media Prefer Natural Disasters

January 22, 2010 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

Andrew Stroehlein, Communications Director for the International Crisis Group, the conflict resolution organisation, where he promotes responsible coverage of current and potential conflicts and helps draw attention to forgotten wars around the world.

“If only Sri Lanka last year could have got a tenth of the media attention Haiti’s now getting”, lamented my friend who was working in Colombo at the time, “the public pressure might have saved so many lives.” While no one would ever argue with the amount of press Haiti is deservedly receiving right now, it’s easy to see his point. The international media respond very differently to the victims of natural disasters and the victims of wars.

Last year’s brutal end to the long-running conflict in Sri Lanka produced tens of thousands of innocent dead and injured in its final few months, as government forces shelled areas with trapped civilians, and Tamil Tiger rebels prevented them from fleeing. Hundreds of thousands of survivors were then put into appalling government-run internment camps, from which they were not allowed to leave. This all garnered significant media attention at the very end of the fighting, but it never at any point had anything near the scale of media interest Haiti’s earthquake is getting today.

And it’s not just the Sri Lankan war that has been under-reported. The numbers out of Somalia right now are hugely disturbing: UNHCR says 63,000 people have been displaced by fighting since the start of this year. That’s 3,000 per day on top of the 1.5 million already displaced and the half million living as refugees as a result of the conflict.

While you’ll find that information if you look for it, the victims of Somalia’s conflict will never get the attention Haiti’s victims are now rightfully receiving. Nor have the victims of other forgotten wars. In recent years, think DR Congo, Southern Thailand, or Nepal just to name three others.

Of course, there are some mundane reasons for Haiti getting more attention than those other crises. An earthquake happens all at once, so the number of victims is immediately and shockingly huge. Haiti is close to the US and its media machine, which though massive is often unwilling to take the time or spend the money to go very far abroad, particularly as they’ve been shedding foreign correspondents right and left, with serious consequences for news coverage and policy making. And, of course, journalists can actually work in Haiti right now, whereas government restrictions and the lack of security on the ground have made some war zones, like Sri Lanka and Somalia, far less easy to access.

But I think there’s another reason that goes deeper than this: natural disasters get treated very differently from wars because their victims are seen differently, particularly by newspaper editors and other mass media gatekeepers who are making the decisions about what subjects to cover. The victims of earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis are perceived as 100% blameless, while the victims of wars do not enjoy such absolute status. For natural disasters, the attitude is simply, “this is tragic for these people”, but with war, the feeling is clearly “this is tragic for these people but…”

And the “buts” are several…

“But it’s political…”, for example. “Political”, or sometimes “complicated”, means we might get angry letters from readers, or we risk alienating part of our viewership if we show the victims of this conflict. The striving for editorial balance and trying to avoid being seen to take sides — even the victims’ side — leads to the absurd notion that murderers and the murdered somehow deserve equal time.

“But these people have had a hand in their own fate”, is another excuse. The idea is that the victims of war have to some degree brought this disaster upon themselves — by electing or not ousting nasty leaders that get them into such a mess, or by allowing themselves to fall for the propaganda of the warmongers, or by their own “ancient ethnic hatreds”. As if anything the average person might have done, or thought would justify the complete savagery they experience in war…

In blaming war’s victims in this way, are we really any different from the lunatics like Pat Robertson who blame Haitians for their own fate today? Every sensible person finds it easy to loathe the US television preacher’s comment that Haiti’s people made a pact with the devil and therefore are reaping what they sowed in this earthquake. The mainstream media are rightly full of scorn for such backward, hateful statements.

But when it comes to war’s victims, are we much better? Our willingness to blame those who are suffering in violent conflicts and our acceptance of the fact that they get less media attention would seem to suggest not.

Journalist Andrew Stroehlein is Communications Director for the International Crisis Group, the conflict resolution organisation, where he promotes responsible coverage of current and potential conflicts and helps draw attention to forgotten wars around the world.

This article was originally written for his personal blog at Reuters AlertNet