The Western bias inherent in disaster reporting

In his classic 1986 study of mainstream American media’s coverage of natural disaster reporting around the world, William C. Adams concluded that the death of one Italian equalled that of three Romanians, nine Latin Americans, 11 Middle Easterners or 12 Asians.

Unsurprisingly, he found the media weighted in favour of Western interests.

Reporting also showed no relationship between disaster severity and media coverage. We might ask how much has changed? Who counts?

Hurricane Harvey is certainly worthy of media attention. It dominated the mediascape.

At the same time however, the South Asian floods barely rated – and these killed over 1200 people, putting a third of Bangladesh under water and negatively affecting at least two and a half million people.

We can observe the same of Hurricane Irma.

Most of the mainstream media’s hurricane reportage of the affected region has focused on the US. Much concern was for Florida, in the projected path of the cyclone, even as it devastated Caribbean islands with Category 5 fury (and to date the greatest death toll).

After two days reporting Irma, the media ‘discovered’ the largish island between the Lesser Antilles and the Florida Keys: Cuba.

But an important point appears to have escaped the media’s attention: Cuba is consistently well-prepared for such storms. It wins plaudits from the United Nations and Oxfam for its hurricane response.

First, Cubans are well educated on hurricane risk; this instruction begins early in school and continues. Consequently, citizens know how to prepare for, and respond to, such emergencies.

Second, before hurricanes make landfall, dedicated teams organised at the community level take to the streets to remove or secure debris.

Third, plans and procedures for evacuation are well coordinated between centralised government and local communities. Cuba’s hurricane plan does not rely on individuals arranging their own shelter or evacuation.

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  • Dr Steve Matthewman is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Auckland.
  • Dr Scott Poynting is Adjunct Professor in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at Western Sydney University.
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