Monday, December 27, 2004

Tsunami Hits Home, Media Hits Back

In many ways, the U.S. media is still trying to come to grips with the tsunami that laid waste to so much of the southeast Asia coastline. While it's the lead story virtually everywhere, the fact that it took place 10,000 miles away, where most newspapers have to rely on wires or far-flung correspondents, has had a stark influence on coverage.
Despite the fact that more than 24,000 people had died by the time it went to press, the N.Y. Times could only manage a four column headline that didn't use the bold block text typically used for larger stories. True, the devastation is hard to comprehend, but how many people have to die before a natural disaster gets a full-deck headline across the page?
More than any other paper, the Times has resisted the temptation to turn the convenient and economically expedient perception that people don't care about foreign news into reality on its pages. True, there are two inside pages devoted to tsunami coverage, but the fact it underplayed the destruction on A-1 is puzzling in the least and disappointing in the extreme.
Meanwhile, it's instructive to see how affected countries focused on coverage. At the Times of India, coverage focused on the thousands feared dead on the remote islands of Car Nicobar while pointing out why India and Sri Lanka are not part of the tsunami early-warning system. The prevailing sentiment in India seems to be "it wasn't supposed to happen here."
The Nation newspaper in Bangkok had another lead story spawned from the devastation in and around Phuket, the death of one of the king's grandsons. Thailand's royal family has no power, but is revered above all other institutions. You know how people enjoy making sport of the British royals and for good reason? That's just not done in Thailand. The king and his family can do no wrong. If they do, you'll never hear about it in the media, so it's more than a sidebar when one of them passes.
Still, The Nation reserved the bulk of its coverage for how tourism, the country's lifeblood, is affected. Just how much is cogently illustrated in a story headlined Warning Rejected to Protect Tourism, which details why weather officials decided not to issue a warning after the initial quake was detected.
You need sidebars to get the full sweep of a story. In Sri Lanka, the Academic had an intriguing nugget about 300 inmates who escaped after waves slammed their high-security prison have a week to return without penalty. Somehow, it's hard to believe these guys are reliant on an honor system.
But context for what a 9.0 on the Richter scale really means comes from the L.A. Times, which reports on how the tsunami moved the entire island of Sumatra about 100 feet before it unleashed its swath of destruction.,0,3904884.story?coll=la-home-headlines.

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