Sunday, 10 May 2015

British bias and reporting on the Nepalese earthquake

The earthquake that hit Nepal on 25th April is an unfolding tragedy of epic proportions. Over 8,000 people are believed to have died, much of the city of Kathmandu and surrounding areas has been destroyed and millions have been left homeless, jobless, or both.

Reporting on the tragedy in the UK media has been its usual mixture of detached, fact-based analysis; diagrammatic 101s in seismology; and emotive, personal interest stories. A recurring theme however has been "The Britons" affected by the disaster.  Because, you know, they're the people that really matter.
This search for a UK-centric angle to a disaster story is hardly a phenomenon unique to this particular event, but some of the reporting this time has struck me as particularly nationalistic. "Amanda Holden Sister Trapped In Quake Hell" was the Daily Star headline on 27th April, followed by a paragraph explaining how Debbie Holden was "trapped in the Mount Everest Earthquake Hell, where up to 50 Brits are feared dead." Now I'm sure Amanda Holden's sister is very dear to her, and I am glad that, as it transpires, she is safe. I wouldn't wish to imply that the threat to her life is any less terrible than the threat to anyone else's out there; the basic premise of this post is that all lives should be considered equally valuable. Yet I can't help but roll my eyes a little at the obvious play to readers they fear will only be interested in the story if a Brit is involved. Preferably a sort-of celebrity Brit stuck up a mountain.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that all reporting has been focussed on the British people affected, but I would wager that the percentage of column inches and airtime given over to discussion of the UK angle is greater than the percentage of individuals affected who are British.  Just a two minute search of online articles identified the following, amongst many others: "Dozens of Britons missing after Nepal earthquake and avalanche" (The Telegraph, 26 April 2015); "Escape from death mountain: Newly-wed British couple describe terror on Everest as they were engulfed by killer avalanche" (Daily Mail, 26 May 2015); "British woman who survived Nepal earthquake needs YOUR help to be rescued" (Daily Mirror, 27 April 2015); "Nepal earthquake: UK investigates British death report" (, 28 April 2015); "UK aid flight carrying 120 Brits from Nepal arrives in Stansted" (ITV News, 30 April 2015); "Royal baby latest: Prince William visits Nepalese Embassy as the Great Kate Wait goes on" (Daily Express, 01 May 2015)...
I don't want to sound naïve - I know that the public relate to stories better when their fellow countrymen and women are directly affected. They want to see things from a less alien perspective, and to learn if anybody they know was involved. Certainly one of the first things I did was to check whether anyone from work was out there (my organisation does a lot of research in Nepal), in the fear that some of my colleagues might be amongst those missing.  Such reactions are understandable - daily life is only ever going to be truly affected when someone we know personally is involved in a tragedy - but it would be nice if we could get more than 2 lines or 10 seconds into a news report on the subject without the hackneyed phrase "At least X Britons are thought to have been killed/injured" arising.

Of course, the degree to which the majority affected - actual Nepalis - are discussed is dependent on the news outlet you get your information from. Without wishing to be snobby (and of course being exactly that), The Daily Star is hardly going to be running a double spread editorial on the social and economic impact of the disaster. The Guardian on the other hand might, and indeed has published a number of excellent pieces on the effect of the quake on Kathmandu's citizens, particularly the poorest (see for example "Nepal Earthquake: What the thousands of victims share is that they're poor"). Yet even The Guardian is not immune to bias, running a series of specific articles on the British, Americans and Australians killed, injured or missing. Admittedly this is a more "international" bias than some sources manage, but it still essentially singles out those from the English-speaking world for special mention.  This weird kind of compatriotism is not unique to this disaster either: when similar incidents (plane crashes being the primary example) fail to claim any British victims, there seems to be a unwritten 'pecking order' of other nationalities that are considered noteworthy, usually topped by the Irish, then Americans and Aussies, and possibly other European nationals.  If none of the above are involved, then a disaster has to be pretty catastrophic or unusual to get mentioned at all.
Social media - which offers a much more democratic voice in as far as language barriers allow - can act to rectify some of the bias and personalise a disaster story in a way that more conventional reporting may struggle to replicate.  But with Twitter and Facebook being increasingly engaged as 'easy' sources of personal insight by the mainstream media, it is perhaps inevitable that social media outputs will be cherry picked to only give a voice to fellow nationals too.  Unfortunately, once these nationals return home, a sigh of relief is breathed, the media moves on and the people whose lives are in tatters back in the country concerned are quickly forgotten by the general public, if not, hopefully, by the aid agencies and the government (though I could write another 20 posts on the challenges posed there...).

The proposition is not that the British media should only should only ever talk about 'local people' and their plight, or that British people do not matter.  It's that reporting should be less conspicuous in its bias in an attempt to prevent the implication - intended or not - that some lives hold more significance and value than others.  We would not immediately sort victims by nationality were a disaster to strike at home, and nor should we automatically do this when one occurs overseas.  Rather than "The Brits" forming the headline therefore, an article on the UK nationals involved might be pushed to page five; and rather than the TV news report opening with the line "At least 2 Britons are thought to be among the 8000 dead", the section on British people affected might be delivered towards the end of the report.

The media are essential in raising awareness and raising funds for those affected by the disaster. It is their responsibility, for this reason as well as for their own sales, to help readers see Nepal less as an alien land of seismic volatility, relative poverty and mountainous landscapes, and more as a nation of people mourning in the same way that any of us might if half our family and our livelihoods had been wiped out. Finding a common bond is the key to ensuring that people feel connected enough to the disaster to donate and help Nepal start the long road to recovery, and that doesn't come from only worrying about our own.

Talking of, to donate to the Nepal Earthquake appeal, please visit the DEC website:  Thanks!


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