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Disaster! What Disaster?

For the first time I can remember, I have read more comment about the lack of coverage of an event than I have had the opportunity to read and see coverage of the event itself. While not completely ignoring the devastating floods and human disaster in Pakistan, the western press has certainly treated the massive loss of life and the humanitarian crisis with little more than a figurative yawn. Where are the teams of CNN journalists? Where’s the CBC and CTV? Where is ABC, NBC and CBS? I hear Al Jazeera English is all over the story though.

As almost all the commentators have done, it is reasonable to compare the coverage of the Haiti earthquake and the events of the past two weeks in Pakistan. In Haiti it took but a few hours before news teams were on their way. They took every imaginable route to the disaster defying the difficulties of an airport that was out of commission and a port that was in ruins. Most came in overland from the Dominican Republic but many chartered their own boats and even helicopters to land in Haiti.
Beyond the news media, rock stars organized fund raisers, everyone, it seemed, had a plan to come to the aid of the Haitian people. The world mobilized and the money poured in.

Now let’s look at Pakistan. Yes, a flood is not as dramatic as an earthquake. Sure the numbers of immediate deaths are small in comparison to Haiti, 300,000 to 14,000. But in Pakistan there are more than triple the number of homeless and if help is not forthcoming disease and starvation may drive the numbers of dead up to Haitian levels or worse.

I’ve heard of no concerts for Pakistan. Anderson Cooper hasn’t moved to Pakistan for a few months to cover the events and rail against the lack of aid. After a few days the news from Pakistan made few front pages of daily newspapers.

The commentators are asking why the lack of interest by the media and in turn, the public. They all give their reasons. Most prominent among the reasons I’ve read has been the idea that there is a disaster fatigue. In other words, we are tired of disasters. Haiti took it out of us. It’s hard to get up for a new human crisis just a few months after we mobilized for Haiti.

Another reason I have read a lot about is that it is summer. TV viewership is down, many correspondents are on vacation, staffs are stretched and frankly why waste the big bucks it would take to do a proper job on the relatively small vacation time audiences.

While I believe there is some truth in both of the above excuses, I do not believe either one comes close to the two real reasons the world press are avoiding Pakistan.

The first “real” reason is that in these days of austerity and budget cutting no network has the money to go all out on Haiti and Pakistan. Haiti is already done and so is the budget. Maybe if the flooding had taken place after Labor Day, the traditional start of the new TV season for newscasters, the news bosses might have been more willing to part with a few bucks and few more resources to cover the flood and its aftermath. Let’s face it, at this time of year you can hardly get Peter Mansbridge and Lloyd Robertson to host their own newscasts, let alone fly off to Islamabad and beyond.

In my opinion the networks and newspapers are breaking one of the golden rules of news coverage. When I got my first executive producing job at CTV, my brilliant boss, Don Cameron, gave me this advice: never spend money you don’t have to spend and NEVER let money get in the way of covering an important news story. I wish Don were alive today because I know if he was, CTV at least, would be all over the Pakistan flood.

Now to the second “real” and least discussed reason for the lack of coverage of Pakistan. Nobody wants to come out and say it because it sounds more than a little racist or anti-Muslim, but come on folks, don’t you think that news people in the west look at Pakistan and see a whole lot of people, many even in the army and the government, who are all too willing to help Bin Laden and the Taliban to kill our boys and girls in Afghanistan. Don’t you think news people see many of the people of Pakistan as fundamentalist Muslims who want to destroy Christianity and kill Jews. Don’t we see Pakistani’s as a source of terrorism in the west and worse a possible source of nuclear terrorism. I haven’t even mentioned the treatment of women or the attacks in Mumbai. Add to all these things the very real fear that if they go, journalists I mean, to western Pakistan there is always the possibility of being kidnapped and beheaded. All of this has to add up to a very natural reluctance to cover any events in Pakistan, let alone the floods.

Logically I can sit here at my very safe desk in Toronto and say yes, all of that may be true, but the millions of poor Pakistani’s who are suffering are human beings, they are victims of a terrible disaster and they are being further victimized by prejudice and the possible fact their religious and political leaders may have committed what we in the west consider crimes against us. It’s not fair, but unless we confront the truths behind our actions we will not be able to do it better next time.

I believe it is really important in the aftermath of the Pakistani floods to take a good look at how the western media reacted to the floods, the homelessness, the starvation and the disease. We must ask ourselves why we gave these event short shrift and we must examine the kind of response that we feel was needed. In the end, journalists may say it was too expensive or too dangerous. They may even say it wasn’t worth the money to report on people that westerners show little compassion for. I would argue the other side. But let’s have the argument so that we know how to react next time instead of letting the story pass by default.

I highly recommend that you all go to the J-Source website, http://www.j-source.ca and read a most thoughtful piece by Claude Adams. Claude is an excellent journalist who has covered these sorts of events all over the world. He speaks from experience and he makes more sense than any other commentary I have read on the subject.

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Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , ,

One Response

  1. James Wicks says:

    “Where’s the CBC and CTV? Where is ABC, NBC and CBS?” Who cares, anymore.
    TV is so last century (can we talk shrinkage? Shrinking audience, anyone?)
    There’s this new Internet-thingy, it seems to be catching on.
    All the news that fits …on your computer, mobile phone, anytime, anywhere).

    I have been following the Pakistan flood tragedy online. I am up to speed, informed, and tuned in.
    I tuned out of TV so long ago, I couldn’t tell you how much hair Peter Mansbridge has left, or whether he sits, stands or walks delivering the news.

    I get my news delivered online.

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