Media Bias: A Tale of Two Floods

Originally published on 6th September 2017 at

IN recent weeks, severe weather has wreaked havoc on opposite sides of the globe, causing misery, damage and loss of lives.

One of these storms caused extensive flooding across more than 100,000km²  of land, killing more than 1,400 people and affecting 41 million individuals. The second storm flooded approximately 1,000km² of land, killed 47 people and left 30,000 people searching for shelter.

Both these natural disasters have brought hardship to the communities they’ve affected and the victims of both these disasters deserve access to all the necessary support and assistance which will help them to begin rebuilding their lives.

SEE ALSO: More than 1,200 dead as floods devastate South Asia

However, in terms of their size, and the numbers of people who have been thrown into hardship, these natural disasters are incomparable. The smaller of the two storms, Hurricane Harvey in the US, caused only a fraction of the devastation that this year’s intense monsoon storms have caused across Nepal, India and Bangladesh.

One would expect that the floods which have killed hundreds of people, would receive considerably more attention in the international media, compared with the relatively localised flooding in the US. However, this hasn’t been the case. Anyone watching a 24-hour news network, opening a newspaper or reading the news on social media over the past seven days would have been under the impression that Hurricane Harvey was by far the worst natural disaster of the year.

Western news networks have been closely following the impact of the hurricane, reporting on the closure of airports, the bravery of volunteers, the president’s reaction, the need for more aid and even the First Lady’s choice of footwear.

Meanwhile, across Nepal, India and Bangladesh, millions of people have been forced to evacuate their homes, over a thousand have been killed, and essential infrastructure in the some of the region’s megacities, such as Mumbai and Dhaka, has been destroyed. These events have unfolded with only the briefest of mentions from most mainstream media outlets.

In the US, Hurricane Harvey has been downgraded to a tropical storm and flood waters in Texas are now receding, residents have begun returning to their homes, and in the coming days, regular services will once again commence.

In contrast, South Asia is right in the middle of the monsoon season, and heavy rains are expected to continue until mid-September. The latest death toll is at 1,453, with 1,170 deaths in India, 143 deaths in Nepal and 140 deaths in Bangladesh. The floods have also destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and closed more than 20,000 schools. Families, who are now homeless, and children, who are without schools, face a long and difficult period ahead before any sense of normalcy will return.

SEE ALSO: Sri Lanka seeks international help after deadly flooding, landslides

In the coming days, the international media will begin delivering reports on the clean-up operations in Texas, while millions of people across South Asia will be battling high waters and living off emergency aid for months to come in what is fast becoming a huge humanitarian disaster.

Unfortunately, these recent floods are not an isolated example of the media giving greater exposure, and expressing greater concern, for events in Europe and North America, while glancing over catastrophic events in Asia and the Middle East.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November 2015, which killed 130, there was a huge outpouring of sympathy for the victims and the people of Paris, with online social media campaigns encouraging everyone to “Pray for Paris”. However, just hours before the attack in Paris, two suicide bombers killed dozens of people and injured hundreds in a shopping district in Beirut. The earlier incident in the Middle East received only minimal media coverage as news networks set about prioritizing coverage of the Paris attacks, the follow-up police investigations by the French police and the memorial services for the victims.

The same media bias was evident in the aftermath of the Manchester suicide bombing which killed 23 people and injured 116 individuals in May this year. This incident made headlines across the world and prompted a star-studded charity concert which generated US$2.3 million dollars from donations in just three hours. Just days after the Manchester attack, a bomber in Baghdad targeted an ice cream shop, killing 22 people and injuring over 100. Then later that month, a suicide bomb in Kabul killed over 90 and injured approximately 400 people. Despite the severity of the tragic attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, they only received a fraction of the coverage the Manchester attack received.

For some reason, natural disasters and terror attacks in Europe and North America are deemed more newsworthy than similar atrocities elsewhere. The deaths of Westerners are considered important enough for the front pages of newspapers while the deaths of Asians, Africans and “others” are more likely to be found further down the newsreel, giving the reader the sense some lives are more important than others.

Not only do international news networks give events in Europe and North America greater coverage, they also report these stories in remarkably different ways.

The victims of natural disasters and terror attacks in Europe and North America are always humanised by reporters, with news networks sharing information about the victims’ backgrounds, and images from their lives before these horrific events struck. Audiences become connected and empathise with the victims and their families. Recent reports from the New York Post about the victims of Hurricane Harvey, with information about these victims’ hopes, dreams and even their final moments, provide an excellent example of how the media can humanise the victims of disasters.

In contrast, news about the hundreds of people who have died in South Asia’s floods has been reported in a cold, distant manner, with the focus firmly on the facts and figures of the event. Any images of these events portray the victims at a distance, presenting them as unfortunate and destitute. Given the lack of insights into these victims circumstances, it is understandably more difficult for readers to connect with and sympathize for the millions of victims across South Asia in the same way they feel they can sympathise with the victims in America.

The contrasting manner in which disasters are reported is not lost on all readers, as recent comments in The Guardian confirm –

‘The contrast between the coverage of floods in Texas and floods in South Asia is stark. Live updating of trivia as well as important events from Houston; the odd report from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and elsewhere. Can we assume that the UK media values an American life at 80 times that of an Asian one?’ – Peter Williams

‘Or are we saying that American lives are worth more?’  – Susan Howe

While the international media is to blame for much of this uneven reporting, consumers also play their part because, as the saying goes, “The public gets what the public wants”. In this Information Age, these words have never been more true, as consumers have the pick of news articles from an extensive range of sources. News networks monitor consumers choices, and news reports which get a lot of “clicks” begin to determine future news reporting. If thousands of people want to read about what the First Lady wore to the floods, then, sadly, news networks are going to oblige.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely the mainstream media’s inherent bias will change anytime soon, although there are actions which readers and writers can take to add some balance to towards these prejudices.

By paying attention to global events which are outside our comfort zones and using social media to promote important news stories under-reported in the mainstream media – such as the 41 million people who are struggling to survive the most devastating floods to hit South Asia in over a decade – these “forgotten” events can start to get the media coverage they deserve.

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