Drowning in Media Indifference: Who cares for the backwoods?

Cartoon in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka, on 12 November 2010

Why do movie audiences in this part of the world cheer every time they see alien invaders blow up the White House? For a long time I thought it had something to do with anti-American sentiments; then I heard that many US audiences react the same way. Perhaps some among us get a kick out of seeing overbearing governments in trouble?

That might explain the gleeful tone with which the Colombo media reported the Sri Lankan Parliament being flooded after torrential rains in mid-November. Newspapers and television channels repeatedly showed images of the Parliamentary complex – built three decades ago on a marshland – completely marooned. The hapless people’s representatives were ferried across the expanse by the military, to take part in a brief session to extend Emergency Regulations. The symbolism was inescapable.

When the trapped rainwater engulfed many areas in and around Colombo, thousands of affected people groaned, but no one was really surprised. By now Sri Lankans know this is almost an annual routine. As I sat knee-deep in my own flooded office, I had a strong sense of déjà vu.

This is the opening of an op ed essay I’ve just written for Himal Southasian magazine, whose March issue carries a cover story on disasters in South Asia.

My essay, titled Drowning in media indifference, takes a personalised look at how the Lankan media have covered different disasters in the past two decades.

“Once again, the mainstream media in Sri Lanka has proven itself irrelevant in reporting and responding to catastrophic flooding,” says the intro — and that pretty much sums it up.

Sri Lankan Parliament flooded after torrential rains in mid-November 2010. The complex, built on a marshland, was completely marooned.

I recall how, back in 1992-93, the then media (fewer in number, with broadcasting still a state monopoly) provided saturation coverage for a major flood in the capital Colombo while under-reporting an even worse flood in the provinces a few months later.

“Fast forward to the present – and how little things have changed! During the past three months, as the fury of the formidable little girl (La Niña, the global weather anomaly) played havoc on the island, I have been struck by the similarly lop-sided coverage in the country’s mainstream print and broadcast media. Urban flooding once again received ample front-page coverage and ‘breaking news’ treatment. Everyone, from cartoonists and editorialists to talk-show hosts and radio DJs, ranted about what was taking place. Yet the much worse flooding, once again in the north, east and centre of the country, received proportionately much less attention. There were a few honourable exceptions, but by and large the 1992-93 disparity was repeated wholesale.”

I have been both an insider and outsider in this issue. I consider myself to be part of the extended mass media community in Sri Lanka for over two decades: I have worked for newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations. At the same time, I retain the ability – and independence – to steps back and take a more critical and objective look at the media industry and community.

My interest in how disasters are covered and communicated go back to the time when my own house was flooded in mid 1992. I have since researched and commented extensively on this issue, and co-edited the 2007 book Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (TVEAP/UNDP).

In this latest essay, I reiterate an argument I’ve been making for sometime: “Media researchers have long accused the Western and globalised news media of having an implicit ‘hierarchy’ of death and destruction, in terms of how they report disasters in developing countries. But Sri Lanka’s own media’s indifference is equally appalling – the story of a quarter-million displaced people languishing in squalid conditions for weeks on end did not constitute front-page news. A starlet entering hospital after a domestic brawl excites news editors more than thousands of flood-affected provincial people starving while waiting for relief.”

Read the full essay, Drowning in media indifference, on Himal Southasian magazine’s website.

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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