Monday, May 12, 2008

Disaster statistics — do the media ever get them right?

When the media provides numbers in headlines and stories, reporters often don’t give much thought to how their audiences will react. It’s not that they don’t care. Often, journalists are just trying to get the latest, best, most accurate number they can under sometimes very trying conditions.

But how will audiences react?

Will the audience react the same way to two deaths in a local town from a traffic accident, as they would to hearing a few dozen people were killed in another part of the country from a tornado?

At what point do hundreds and then thousands of deaths — whether by war, nature or some other tragedy — mean nothing anymore because the audience is numbed to the statistics and they lose their relevance or impact?

In the case of fatalities after a horrible tragedy, sometimes numbers can be more easily accessed than others. If the tragedy is a traffic accident, a confined explosion in a certain location, or some other situation where there was a small, defined area and possibly a certain amount of known victims that were present, then getting numbers is easier and probably more reasonably accurate.

But then there are more challenging examples of what the media must face. Nature causes huge storms that impact greater geographical areas and extraordinary damage: that makes it very difficult to monitor the actual numbers of dead, as well as deal with estimates of missing and dead.

After all, if a whole family — or community, or several cities in several countries, such as after the Asian tsunami — are wiped out, who’s left to even report the missing or dead?

There are also the challenges of dealing with physical debris, general chaos, incredible bureaucracy or even political interference. Deliberate or not, this can cripple a country or city in crisis, and make it almost impossible for the journalists to report facts to the world — or make an audience care about the victims.

As they try to keep up with the number, unfortunately the media become almost a machine churning out updates from one disaster and then rushing off to the next horrible event before ever finally concluding what exact human toll was extracted from the first tragedy.

The last two weeks show several examples of this. While tens of thousands of people are dead and missing from cyclone Nargis, Myanmar’s government has refused to allow aid workers in to help more than 1.5 million people who survived the storm — but now face starvation or diseases.

Each day the number of dead rises by the thousands, but it is clear that probably the true number of dead will never be known because of the physical condition of the mess left behind, but also the political conditions of the country. Military generals do not want the world to know what really is happening there, and many more lives will be needlessly lost to protect military power that existed for more than four decades in one of the poorest nations of the world.

The propaganda from Myanmar’s generals has been despicable as they claim to have the situation under control — when clearly that is not the case — and they take credit for any emergency supplies that have been allowed into the country.

How long will the media try to cover this story when it is so difficult to do so?

Meanwhile, China begins to add up the thousands of dead that are emerging from a powerful 7.9 magnitude earthquake there. Known as a secretive nation itself, China has been forced to be more open than usual with the extent of its disaster mainly because of the upcoming Beijing Olympics in August.

China has always played the propaganda game well on the international stage, but faces much pressure to open itself up to foreign news coverage. Even the official Xinhua news agency in China has surprised the international community with it been quicker and more open in revealing the extent of the earthquake damage and deaths.

But again the media must wonder: How quickly and accurately will officials know the number of dead? And how much of those real statistics will be revealed to the national and international journalists so they can inform the public?

And by the time those numbers do come out, will the media and public even care — or will there be another tragedy — local, national or international — that will divert their attention?

Sadly, too quickly forgotten will be the family of rice farmers wiped out in Myanmar, or the children buried by a school that collapsed over them in China. No one will ever have the real numbers of those who died or provide the respect deserved of those people who are now just another distorted statistic in newspapers and history books.

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