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11 Feb 2003 00:00
Last weekend seven bright lives were lost in a sudden and shocking disaster. Those who knew and loved them have declared themselves “stricken with grief”.
But the world has not skipped a heartbeat.
Some 12 hours previously, the news of seven other untimely deaths broke. As many rolling news channels switched to almost blanket coverage, the details of the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia were translated across the globe. United States President George W Bush addressed a stunned and freshly devastated nation. And on Sunday many world newspapers presented the disaster with a solemnity and ceremony that surprised some readers.
The notion of a comparative index, cynically weighing human life and death, is a distasteful one. But news agencies are constantly called upon to defend their choices and priorities, which are often instinctual and seldom coherent. Why this English motorway accident and not that Indonesian ferry sinking? Why not the seven dead Africans washed up on a southern Spanish beach last month? Why not the seven Palestinians shot dead daily by Israeli forces over a three-day incursion last week? And if our ability to understand another person’s suffering is arguably the basic unit of morality, what of our own individual capacity for empathy?
Many working in the media would argue that seven people being incinerated in public view as they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere following a space expedition is so obviously worthy of a substantial amount of coverage that it barely begins to challenge accepted news values. Dominic Lawson, editor of the London Sunday Telegraph, ran a sombre but striking front page, the masthead blank of the usual brightly coloured “puffs” flagging up interesting articles within the package, and a poignant photograph of the astronauts taking up its full width.
“I was very happy with how we dealt with it — I thought it was very striking. If you think that’s all that people are going to be interested in that morning, then you want to make the strongest possible statement.” He insists that it is not unprecedented for the paper to run a blank masthead, although the last times were when members of the royal family had died, arguably reflecting a national mood.
He does not believe that the British public were mourning on this occasion: “Drama is what it’s about. There is something hugely dramatic about a space mission that goes catastrophically wrong, and it’s highly unusual.’’ Should seven Israelis or Palestinians find themselves killed next Saturday, they may not expect the same treatment. “News value is equivalent to surprise. It’s not a comparative exercise in the value of human life.”
Roger Alton, editor of the London-based Observer Sunday newspaper, agrees that the shuttle story merited the amount of coverage it received. “It’s a great human story, but it’s about more than seven people dying. It ticks a lot of boxes — the current situation in the States, the nature of exploration and risk, our ambiguous feelings about space.”
He maintained a more typical layout for commercial reasons, he says. “The masthead is about selling papers — readers are notoriously promiscuous on Sundays and you have to factor in that if they don’t care about the shuttle, they may still be interested in Paul Gascoigne or Nicole Kidman. Our sales dropped the last time we dropped the masthead.”
Roy Greenslade, the media commentator for the London-based Guardian newspaper, however, while acknowledging the obvious merits of the story, is less convinced of its importance when viewed in a broader context. “I do think that the coverage over the weekend was excessive. It is significant that people who die undertaking a very risky enterprise gain more coverage than those who die day after day living their ordinary lives in Israel. There is a hierarchy of death and if you fit into a certain role then you are going to get more exposure.”
Greenslade believes that the British press has been expressing an unconscious acceptance of the US as supreme global power. “We are oversensitive to what happens over there and we treat their tragedies with kid gloves. Our hurt is their hurt. I’ll be looking with great interest to see whether the first seven Iraqis killed in the forthcoming conflict get anything like the pages of sympathy devoted to these astronauts.”
He notes with interest that the owners of both the Telegraph and The Sunday Times (London), which also dropped its usual masthead layout on Sunday, are strongly pro-US.
Peter Cole, professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield, similarly considered the coverage excessive, but identifies other factors that he believes propelled the story to a level of global interest. “Space is still a dramatic and emotive subject, and the coverage was proportionate to the way the US responded to the disaster.
“Watching Bush’s comments, it seemed almost reminiscent of the twin towers. The US always takes itself and what happens to it seriously, and we do reflect that in Britain because we report their news far more than news from other places, even from Europe. Would we have given it so much coverage if it had been a Russian craft?
“I don’t think so.”
Language, ethnicity, the availability of strong images and familiarity to the reader all feed into the decisions taken by news editors who must fit a surfeit of events into a paucity of pages. The Guardian readers’ editor, Ian Mayes, wrote about “the prejudice of distance” in a column last year. Discussing The Guardian’s minimal coverage of a West African ferry disaster in which more than 1 000 people died, he noted: “Do their lives have a different value? The answer may be no but the signal sent out sometimes says yes ... The editors involved in news judgements of this kind say they are the most difficult decisions they have to take, never absolute and very often controversial.”
But does any discussion of parity of coverage result in a reduction ad absurdum?
“It’s not about what is right or wrong,’’ says Cole. “Rarity is a legitimate news value. You might get compassion fatigue, but never space shuttle disaster fatigue. That rarity argument is defensible because news is what is unusual by definition.”
But the ability to empathise isn’t always determined by race or proximity.
“The Kursk was an incredibly emotive story because mentally you got inside the submarine with them, you were running out of air and waiting to be rescued. It doesn’t have to be a place you go every day to make you connect.”
But the question of value tends not only to the coverage we have access to but to our own responses to it. People die. Even people we love best. Many of those deaths are not publicly noted. And some are not even mourned. How do we negotiate as individuals our distribution of empathy — to those we know, and those we don’t, to the population of Burundi, to the celebrity couple whose marriage is on the rocks?
“I don’t think that there is any equitable way to deal with disasters,” says philosopher Mary Warnock. “On the one hand, we are still in the grip of myth-telling. The story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and burned his wings, remains powerfully symbolic and the shuttle crash taps into very primitive fears about the mysterious nature of space. But equally, we are gripped
by the London subway train derailment or a train crash because we can imagine being in that position ourselves.
“It’s impossible to keep up a uniform state of shock covering the whole globe,’’ she adds. “One doesn’t have the emotional strength to do it. We have limits, and have to exercise them on a daily basis, otherwise we would become quite paralysed.”
But for Professor Jacqueline Rose, who has written extensively on the Middle East, the grief over the Columbia crew is patently a troubling expression by a people who have reached those limits. “A nation grieves because it is trying to put out of its mind the fact that it is about to be involved in the killing of up to 80 000 civilians in Iraq. This is an occasion that allows people to contemplate this in a displaced way.”
The visual images of debris falling from the sky were terribly reminiscent of September 11, she adds.
“It’s an indirect acknowledgement of an ongoing vulnerability from then, which clashes with their leader’s fantasy of omnipotence. They are suffering a classic split — they are told that they are being good citizens, liberating the people of Iraq, but they are also aware that they are about to do the most terrible violence.”
Rose has no truck with the suggestion that individuals withdraw their compassion from situations that they feel powerless to change. “We are not powerless, and one of the great things about the anti-globalisation movement is that it has shown us that we are all accountable. I don’t like the expression compassion fatigue, because we have a surplus of empathy in some places and not in others.
“There are selections occurring, to do with hugely vested interests. We have to ask who is selecting where we feel empathy.”
What may go some way to explaining why one event has a greater impact than another on an individual or a nation is the manner in which our own sense of self is tied to the wider context in which we find ourselves existing, says Julian Baggini, editor of the Philosophers’ Magazine and author of Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines. “What gives value to human life? We can understand the individual as the elements that are intrinsic to the self — psychological or otherwise. But other views understand the self as located and interrelated with society, culture and even nationhood.”
The Columbia disaster could serve as a warning, he suggests, as we realise that there are rarely good reasons why we devote pages to some tragedies and none to others. “It should make us uneasy.”
But is there an element of relief in our reaction, as we embrace a manageable, discrete tragedy as a welcome distraction from the ongoing threats of war and terrorism over which we feel we have no control? “It certainly offers catharsis: it’s purged and then it’s gone. That’s why it’s not news that another X children died of malnutrition today, because there is no emotional closure on that. Again that shows how we deal with what we can deal with most comfortably, rather than what is most pressing or ethically important.”
But doesn’t this present a rather depressing picture of humanity: selfish, with no sense of urgency, craving easy answers? “Life is hard and people are weak,’’ Baggini responds. “It’s not through any terrible self-centredness or malice. It is a relatively recent phenomenon for us to be aware of what’s going on all over the world. We’re not wired up to cope with the suffering of huge numbers of anonymous people.”
Some academics have tried to explain ethics in terms of evolution, he notes, exploring for what purposes feelings evolved. “But there is no evolutionary reason why we should be instinctively concerned with a famine in a faraway place. So it’s a triumph of reason that most of us feel that if it’s terrible that someone should be starving to death on our own doorstep, then it is equally terrible if they are starving a million miles away. It takes an intellectual effort to make that transposition.” — Â
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