A tale of two earthquakes

The worst of times induced by natural disasters are the best of times for news media.

by Jacob Swede

âÄúSpeak truth to powerâÄù has long been a mantra for journalists, but recent coverage of Haiti and Chile has shown that idea to be anything but the case. The earthquake in Chile was 500 to 900 times as strong as the recent one in Haiti, according to geophysicist Tom Dixon, yet Chile has received an inverse proportion of public attention. Oxfam AmericaâÄôs donation count for both countries reflects this inattention, reporting that Haiti received $2.9 million while Chile received a fraction of 1 percent of that: $3,500. The reason behind this is obvious: ChileâÄôs infrastructure was more prepared for the earthquake than HaitiâÄôs. The cumulative death toll from the two earthquakes is nearly 23,000; 22,000 of those are Haitians. Their government has been literally and figuratively reduced to rubble. But the most prevalent reason for the disparity in coverage by the media is much simpler. The utter devastation of a nation so impoverished was just more interesting. This isnâÄôt to say that the Haiti disaster itself is insignificant; itâÄôs obviously one of the most important stories in the past few months, and the media attention has undoubtedly bolstered rescue and recovery efforts. But the network newsâÄô excessive incursions into the territory of sensationalism has been both demeaning and irresponsible. HaitiâÄôs disaster started with coverage of the devastation of the earthquake, but focus increasingly shifted toward uninformative tales of human interest. Certainly, some anecdotes do bring a human element to distant news stories, but excessive focus on the minute distorts and obscures the holistic truth by shifting the coverage from HaitiansâÄô everyday realities to individual stories and secondary controversies. From Anderson CooperâÄôs heroic rescue of a Haitian youth while filming to Baptists attempting to smuggle Haitian children out of the country, the fatuous lack of restraint by news networks in distinguishing the informative from the irrelevant subsumed the legitimacy and necessity of the primary story of how Haitians are affected by the damage and what the average citizen could do to help. Judging by the way major cable outlets described Haiti, it was as though America had just realized that its island neighbor was abjectly poor. But according to UNICEF, between 1992 and 2007, 55 percent of Haitians have been living under the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. This problem has been compounded by demographic trends. Between 1990 and 2008, HaitiâÄôs population grew more than 25 percent, while its GDP decreased 2 percent. Most Americans arenâÄôt likely to know these simple statistics because the institutions Americans depend on to deliver news largely drown relevant information in the white noise of human interest stories. However, it is vital to understand the conditions that allowed HaitiâÄôs situation to become as extreme as it was. Through the outpouring of empathy for Haiti, America has developed disaster fatigue. This has left little room for coverage of the Chilean quake. Relative to its neighbors, Chile is wealthy. It has the highest GDP in South America. Chileans had an average population growth rate of 1.1 percent between 2000 and 2008. Chilean GDP per capital grew 3.6 percent during the same period, with only 2 percent living on $1.25 a day or less between 1992 and 2007. The Chilean government has a substantially stronger capability to deal with its disaster. And without dramatic stories of survival or eccentric aid groups, cable news found little material to be sensationalized from the tragedy. Accordingly, televised news changed its strategy and diverted attention from the story. The focus was redirected from the disaster zone in Chile to the impending tidal inundation of Hawaii. But the tsunami never came. Once again, the cable hype machine spun a sensational story to capture the empathy and terror of Americans and churn it into ratings. Apocalyptic broadcasts lent themselves to the six-hour âÄúnewsâÄù sensation that was HawaiiâÄôs 2.5-foot tsunami. Perhaps more disturbing than the television mediaâÄôs incompetent framing of the Hawaiian tsunami is the American publicâÄôs macabre embrace of impending catastrophe. Our collective voyeurism invited the establishment of direct feeds, streamed across the Internet so television viewers could rush to find live coverage of the coming wave. As though the Chilean earthquake wasnâÄôt enough to satiate the American appetite for disaster porn, another level of anxious anticipation had to be heaped on, and CBSâÄô USTREAM Live service won the contest by providing live coverage of the Hawaiian beach. Incredibly, a simple GoogleNews search on the Hawaiian tsunami reveals a vast majority of stories focused on the disappointment of viewers. One CNN anchor laughed at a man who waded into the surf as the tsunami was scheduled to hit shore. ItâÄôs no wonder that media conglomerates pander to the lowest common denominator of the American public to earn their revenue. If Haiti and Chile are any indication, speaking relevant truth to the people has become a journalistic anachronism. The new age of 24-hour news is centered upon framing news as a reality TV show, like a drama-packed episode of Survivor. As long as Americans reward this vapid and shallow coverage, television companies will continue to oblige them. Jacob Swede welcomes comments at [email protected]