Unequal coverage of natural disasters

Diane Abbott

Sunday, November 04, 2012

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From Canada to the Caribbean, everyone is mopping up after the effects of the ferocious Hurricane Sandy. It reminds us of a religious disposition that God is not mocked. Sometimes the sheer terrifying power of nature can disrupt the best laid plans of men, including American presidential campaigns.

Sandy has had wall-to-wall coverage here in Britain. This is partly because it provides superlative pictures of torrents of water, sheets of rain, submerged buildings, and man struggling with nature. Television and the picture editors of newspapers love stories like this.

But it is noticeable how America has got all the media attention and the Caribbean relatively little. In the London Guardian alone there were 65 articles on hurricane Sandy, but only eight of these referred to its effect on the Caribbean. Yet just consider the figures.

So far in north-eastern America, there have been 60 deaths. But in the Caribbean there have been 69 deaths in total, including 52 people in Haiti, 11 in Cuba, two in The Bahamas, two in the Dominican Republic, one in Jamaica and one in Puerto Rico. But whilst the American deaths are front-page news, the 52 deaths in Haiti got virtually no mention.

Hundreds of people die in hurricanes and typhoons in places like The Philippines, but they get very little coverage in the British and European media. The exception was the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. But the European coverage focused on the European tourists who happened to be on holiday in the region. You would have had to concentrate particularly hard on the media in order to realise that 230,000 other people died in a total 14 countries in the region.

There are some practical reasons for the disproportionate attention paid to natural disasters in America as opposed to the third world. One is that the big global TV outlets like CNN tend to be based in the US. Big storms which provide wonderful pictures every hour on the hour are perfect for 24-hour rolling news, and every British newspaper and broadcaster has correspondents permanently in New York or Washington. But it also reflects how much of the rest of the world, including Britain, is subject to an American cultural hegemony.

However, if natural disasters that happen in places outside America don't get the attention from the media, it becomes more difficult to focus politicians and policymakers on the regions, like the Caribbean, that may need special help in the wake of these natural disasters.

A hurricane is a horrific experience for anyone, whether they live in Haiti or New Jersey. But there needs to be more discussion in international institutions about the special needs of small island states, because they are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. Even those who do not believe in climate change must be wondering at the regularity of phenomena of hurricanes and typhoons as the oceans rise and the earth slowly warms up.

Of course, the most immediate political consequences of Sandy are for this week's American presidential elections. All American politicians are aware of how disastrous the handling of Hurricane Katrina was for George Bush and his political reputation. Barack Obama is a lucky politician, and Hurricane Sandy is not unlucky for him. For one thing, the states it has hit hardest are solidly Democratic, so he doesn't have to worry about the flooding and devastation affecting his voter turnout.

It has also disrupted Romney's campaign trajectory and forced him to moderate (for a few days) his criticism of Obama. Above all, it has allowed Obama to dominate the broadcast media and appear presidential. So if Obama is victorious next week, he may have Hurricane Sandy to thank.




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