Numbering the Dead
Editor's Note: Just after Sept. 11, 2001, Al Tompkins wrote a piece for Poynter Online that looked at a study on "Whose lives count? TV coverage of natural disasters." The study, and Al's reflections on it, are sadly relevant in the wake of Asia's recent tsunami. His piece -- which appears below in its original form -- captures both the difficulty of understanding and explaining massive numbers of fatalities, and the factors that affect news coverage of disasters.
How many American deaths equal how many Italian deaths equal how many Rwandan deaths? Such a question may seem insensitive to a culture in agony, a nation built upon the ideal that all are created equal. But as we ponder the meaning of more than 6,000 human beings dying in acts of terror on our own land, it may be time to contemplate what it means as journalists to number the dead.
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 Poynter.org, 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.
"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: http://www.gwu.edu/~pad/202/readings/disasters.html
Adams said he was unsure what the breathtaking death toll in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., will teach the American media long term. "My first instinct is it will give us a whole newfound ability to empathize and appreciate these four-figure numbers we get from other countries and try to wrap up in a couple of minutes on the nightly news."
On the other hand, professor Adams says, "I could spin a hypothesis that it is so painful that we might not see more coverage (if thousands die elsewhere) because it would be so excruciating (after the attacks here) that we would want to displace it rather than dredge up all of those memories again."
There is so much that I wish we could forget about the last week. I hope as journalists years from now, when we are staring at the wires and reading about an earthquake in (choose one: Turkey, India, China, Japan, Central America) that claims thousands of lives or a flood that drowns about 7,000 people, maybe we can remember what it feels like for a nation to lose 6,000 countrymen. Maybe we can push harder to find a way to cover such stories.