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Poverty Times #3

Where death really counts

by Richard Adams

The satirical US magazine Spy, during its heyday at the end of the 1980s, ran a regular feature calculating the space the New York Times would devote to a tragedy. The greater the number of dead US citizens and the closer they were to Times Square, the calculation predicted, the more column inches the Times would devote to it.

Every month or so, Spy would compare its prediction with the actual coverage, and voila! the algorithm was proved correct - so a murder on Fifth Avenue was worth hundreds of African famine victims. British newspapers have never been quite so parochial but clever mathematicians might bend their minds to creating similar arithmetic for British media.

Designing such a calculation is going to be harder. Based on the relative coverage of the fl ooding in Bangladesh last July and the hurricane in Florida last August, it’s not just proximity or the presence of Britons that makes the difference. There’s something else going on, something that’s harder to put into fi gures. Xenophobia is one thing, but how does an equation account for skin colour?

Obviously, things that happen in Britain are going to be more extensively covered. Flash-fl ooding in Cornwall rightly gets rolling news coverage. But how can we explain the huge discrepancy between the space and effort devoted to Hurricane Charley in Florida, and the fl ooding in Bangladesh? Obviously, one place is a long-haul fl ight away, is regularly prone to natural disasters and political unrest, and many of the residents belong to a foreign culture and do not speak English - yes, that’s Florida.

Bangladesh, on the other hand, was a British colony up until 1947, is still a member of the Commonwealth and has a large number of its citizens living in the UK, as well as many other cultural and fi nancial links. Yet all that counts for little when weighed against the key issue: Bangladesh is not home to Disneyworld.

It may have an ancient culture dating back thousands of years but it does not have Disneyworld. So when people see “breaking news” with warnings of titanic fl oods in Bangladesh, followed by live footage of the looming disaster, they do not think: “Oh no, I wonder if this will affect the beautiful 18th century Kantaji Temple in Dinajpur.” But when they see storm warnings about Florida, they worry about a theme park built on a swamp by a rightwing weirdo. Of course there were no “breaking news” fl ashes or breathless live coverage of the impending disaster in Bangladesh. In fact the number of British correspondents there is very small indeed, whereas one can barely spit in the US without hitting a British journalist.

Given that the US is the world’s economic and military superpower, it’s no surprise that that it gets more coverage. But Bangladesh is a country of 140 million, mainly Muslims, making it rather important. It is also the world’s No 1 contributor to UN peacekeeping missions, and has a vital role to play in world affairs, given that it sits right by India and China, the likely powerhouses of the future.

It’s no good saying that Bangladesh is always getting hit by fl oods, since Florida is always getting hit by hurricanes. Just on raw statistics alone, Florida should barely get a mention. The fl oods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh caused a death toll of nearly 2,000. Nearly half of those occurred in Bangladesh, where more than 30 million people have been affected by homelessness and disease.

In Florida the death toll was 16 - yet by Monday Britain’s newspapers had carried 19,000 words in six days of coverage. In a month since the fl ooding in Bangladesh began, only 9,000 words were carried. The easy conclusion is that people in Florida are white and speak English (except that lots of them are Latin and speak Spanish) while Bangladeshis are neither white nor English-speaking.

But it’s worse than that. The only time Bangladesh even gets a mention on the news here is when there’s a deadly fl ood. The media are caught in a cleft stick, that the only way developing countries get coverage is in a manner that does serious harm to our perception of them. The more that is written about fl oods and disasters, the less we take places such as Bangladesh seriously.

Richard Adams is a leader-writer for the Guardian. This article was fi rst published by the Guardian on August 20, 2004. Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004.