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Islands of disconnect

By Sharmila Joshi

Why does the Indian media cover Hurricane Katrina in detail, but bury news of floods in rural Maharashtra? If the argument is that coverage is allocated according to what 'affects' and is 'relevant' to the reader, it is based on the dangerous assumption that the world consists of disconnected islands

In the last two months, two major natural disasters have visited two major cities in two major democracies in the world: the unprecedented rains and subsequent floods in Mumbai and the hurricane and its aftermath in New Orleans in the US.

Many who read English language newspapers in India are now well-informed about the many details of the destruction of New Orleans starting from August 29: the force of the hurricane, the ineffective evacuation, the saga at the superdome, the federal government's late response and so on.

But it would be difficult to find a single reader in the US, a reader who does not scour beyond the mainstream press, who is as well-versed with what happened in Mumbai on July 26 and the days after. Indians as well as others in the US who wanted more details, had to read them on the Internet. (The 'neutral' Net's Google, incidentally, gives 428,000,000 search results for 'Hurricane Katrina' and 722,000 for 'Mumbai floods'.)

After reading the exhaustive (and, after a point, exhausting) coverage about Katrina, several people in Mumbai compared with pride the public response in their city, where people tried to help each other, with the response in New Orleans, where people resorted to violence and looting. Or how the official machinery in this struggling country proved to be more effective than the formidable resources of the US administration. I am quite sure not many Americans, if any, in New Orleans compared their people's and government's response — negatively or positively — with the aftermath of the floods in Mumbai.

The merit of either response, or its perception, is not in question here. What is, however, is the fact that some readers in Mumbai thought it fit to compare themselves positively to people in New Orleans, almost as if the comparisons were important to enhance one's self-image. The 'We are as good as (or better than) them' attitude sets up the 'we' (in this instance, mainly the upwardly mobile Indian urban middle class) for comparison against something deemed better (in this case a sanitised US, devoid of gross race, class or gender divides). This implies that 'we' need the gold standard of the US for self-definition.

Unequal coverage in the print media is not unusual. In the US, coverage of events of gigantic proportions in India and in the rest of South Asia are often in inverse proportion to coverage in the Indian press of similar events in the US. In fact, this applies to any part of the world deemed to be insignificant for the mainstream American press — unless there is an event of cataclysmic consequences, like the tsunami.

This 'greying out' of large parts of the world in the American press is reflected and adapted in the Indian press. So, the US's 9/11 disaster becomes prime news for several days but not as much coverage is given to the incomparable agony of Afghanistan after it was bombed in retaliation. When London was hit by a series of bomb blasts that killed at least 37 people on July 7 this year (2,190,000 results for 'London blasts' on Google), many English language papers in India carried the news on the front-page and follow-up stories continued for days on the inside pages. But when blasts killed at least 27 and injured more than 400 in Istanbul on November 20, 2003, (just 172,000 results for 'Istanbul blasts' on a Google search) the coverage here was comparatively sparse.

Incidentally, friends in Istanbul were equally unaware about the bomb blasts in Mumbai at the Gateway of India and in Kalbadevi on August 25, 2003, which killed at least 48 people. When a stampede in August this year killed more than 1,000 in Iraq, it was initially prominent in the international pages. But the aftermath of such a major event was quickly pushed out when Katrina came along soon after.

It could be argued that the relative rarity of bomb blasts in London (post--IRA threats) or the magnitude of the natural disaster and its consequences in the world's supposedly richest and most powerful most special nation merit greater coverage than is granted to similar events across the world. Was that not why such mourning and outrage had to ensue after the 9/11 attacks — undoubtedly horrific — but there was little after ten times as many people were reportedly killed by American attacks a few weeks later in Afghanistan? Of course, Iraq can be dismissed as that ever-violent place. Or perhaps, because these are also among the financial capitals of the world, what happens in such places as London or New York affects the globe more powerfully than events in, say, Cambodia.

But rarity, or the geo-politically significant nature of any Nation-State, cannot be consistently defensible criteria for the extent and depth of news coverage, especially of human loss and suffering after a disaster of any kind. What then must determine how much column space will be given to an event, a region, or a process?

While the English language press in Mumbai naturally covered the flood at great length, the concurrent flooding in other parts of Maharashtra received relatively marginal coverage. If this is because Mumbai is where most of the English newspaper readers perhaps reside, and the 'rest' of Maharashtra is less immediate, that is, if geographical distance is the criterion, surely, New Orleans is much further than Sangli?

Is the criteria to give readers — who are typically believed or surveyed to be the upwardly mobile or 'aspirational' middle class and the upper middle class — what 'they want to read'? And then extrapolating that to interpret (perhaps correctly) that they will not want to read about long lines for kerosene in Mumbai's slum? Only because this class does not consume that commodity. But then, if direct use/consumption is the criteria, why cover debates about nuclear weapons, when most of this class is not likely to use such weapons either?

If the argument is that coverage is allocated according to what 'affects' and is 'relevant' to the reader, it is based on the dangerous assumption that the world consists of disconnected islands. That in this world, what happens to one part is not linked and not intricately inter-constituted by every other part in some way. Or that only relatively affluent parts and concerns of the world are somehow connected and important enough for consistent coverage. That surely is an erroneous premise to work on. And so, we cover and devour what is happening in New Orleans, while the US media deem us not part of the significantly 'connected' world and largely ignore the floods in Mumbai.

And 'we' in turn largely ignore many parts of the globe or areas closer home. What's happened to the jazz capital of the world is surely more important than what may possibly have happened to the home of many folk traditions and artistes in Maharashtra? After all, how can floods or drought in the rest of Maharashtra, the loss of crops, shattered lives, people being forced out of homes and migrating to Mumbai, and just sheer human distress that is so far away, be of any lasting interest to the upbeat citizens of the island of Mumbai?

(This article first appeared in The Hindustan Times, September 22, 2005)