Hurricane Harvey or Indian floods - why we care about some catastrophes more than others

On a warming planet, some disasters may be more relevant to us than we think. 

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“Are they my poor?” This line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, aptly titled "Self-reliance", does not actually advocate for altruism. Instead, the American individualist asks why he should care about the downtrodden if he doesn’t know them. His question, however uncomfortable it may sound to modern ears, is one that underpins many current conversations about where we focus our outrage.

Coverage of the undoubtedly devastating Hurricane Harvey in the United States has dominated news headlines internationally. Yet at the same time, flooding of arguably worse magnitudes has been wreaking havoc in large swathes of South Asia, such as India and Nepal, among communities already disproportionately affected by climate change.  

The current death toll in parts of India, such as the provinces of Andhra Pradesh and the poverty-stricken Bihar, is steadily climbing above 1,200. More than 2.4 million people are affected in some way. Local authorities in neighbouring Bangladesh have stated that they’ve never seen floods this devastating before.  

These events are receiving far less coverage in the international media than Hurricane Harvey is -  the New York Times ran one story on the flooding in South Asia on 29 August 2017, compared to five on Harvey. On the Guardian’s world news page, at time of writing, there are at least four different stories on Hurricane Harvey, and one on South Asia.

The 18th century utilitarian philosopher David Hume argued that humanity itself is far less likely to care about distant objects, events or a person (which is why we need the law and the government). In the 21st century, this goes for humanity's media coverage as well. Events that are closer to the target audience of a media organisation are more heavily covered, according to the old new adage, backed up by modern analytics, that readers are probably far more likely to engage with stories that could happen to them, whether it’s tomorrow or ten years from now.

Paul Slovic’s study on a perceived relationship between statistics and governmental action, “Psychic Numbing and Genocide”, pointed out individual stories are often far more compelling in stirring up feelings of empathy and interest from the public and their governments than numbers. Decisive action often requires “pressure on the media to do its job and report the slaughter of thousands of innocent people aggressively and vividly”. Much of the recent Western coverage of Hurricane Harvey has focused on eyewitness accounts from people that are often not so dissimilar than their readers. 

It’s no surprise that media coverage often runs along geographical and cultural fault lines. Logistically, regional news organisations are able to get reporters and photographers on the ground more quickly. Networks such as the Indian TV channel NDTV or papers such as the Hindustan Times do have wall-to-wall coverage of those extreme monsoon rains and not as much on Hurricane Harvey.

Righteous readers can still protest that their local newspapers should take more interest in international tragedies - especially when, in the case of weather events, it may link to the wider issue of climate change. But the criticism can go two ways. “Social media is littered with people accusing the media of not covering Lahore with the same kind of depth that was afforded to Brussels. But as an industry we just can’t seem to get people to want to read the coverage in the same amount of depth,” wrote Martin Belam, the social media and news formats editor for the Guardian, in a piece on Medium in 2016, after the Lahore bombings.

Using the Guardian’s  statistics monitoring tool, Ophan, he showed that even though the story was breaking news and featured prominently on the Guardian webpage, it was not in the top five stories read that day. In contrast, when the terror attacks happened in Brussels, stories about the terror attack consistently rated highly, with millions following the Guardian’s liveblog.

This isn’t just what some would call liberal hypocrisy. Charles Johnson, the digital editor of the independent-minded Chicago Tribune, previously made a similar point in an editorial in the same year. “We will cover the important news whether or not it attracts a large audience online." he wrote. "But reader interest does help shape the size of the spotlight we offer to certain stories.” There's no doubt that large news organisations can neglect to cover interesting stories in parts of the world that might seem more distant from their base; but the blame cannot be placed squarely on their shoulders. 

The reality of the limits of human empathy, though, collides with another reality - climate change, global warming and the devastation they will wreak are not localised. Rising water levels and a lack of international action will make most countries, if not all of them, prone to the kind of flooding and devastation currently experienced in Andhra Pradesh. Which begs the question: how will international environmental action be co-ordinated, if readers won’t take the time to engage with these issues when they’re still able to do so?

Sanjana Varghese was previously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology.