On 14 August, thousands of Sierra Leoneans went missing after heavy rains caused a hillside to collapse and engulf villages on the outskirts of Freetown. I heard about the disaster on BBC radio. About six hours after the disaster was announced, I checked my Facebook newsfeed, expecting to read something about the story. Although, at that time 200 were already reported dead, barely anything was being reported on it.
The following day, nothing has changed: on the heavily populated BBC homepage, a Ctrl+F for ‘sierra’ returned: nothing. As at midday on 15/08/2017, the story is eighth down on the BBC ‘world’ tab. It reports that 300 are dead with hundreds more missing.*This low level coverage is much the same across the board in terms of the mainstream media.
The tendency to neglect reporting humanitarian (especially non-political) crises in countries that we are unfamiliar with is a familiar one. Last year, the Guardian ran a headline, “Unbalanced reporting on Africa holds back progress”, in which a Somali diplomat (rightly) criticised Western media for cartoonish representations of the African continent and its people. The previous year it had run another, (rightly) lambasting the under-reporting of Boko Haram attacks in Baga (shortly after the widely covered Charlie Hebdo shootings), stating: “African lives are still deemed less newsworthy – and, by implication, less valuable – than western lives”. Why, in the 24 hours after the Sierra Leone mudslide was first reported, did the Guardian publish nothing about it on its Facebook page? In the meantime, articles deemed more worthwhile included two Game of Thrones items, and one about the introduction of a new shade of purple to commemorate Prince.
This is not to single out the Guardian. The Facebook pages of the Independent and the Times also failed to mention Sierra Leone, and the Telegraph and Daily Mail each posted about the tragedy in Sierra Leone once. The uncomfortable truth, for the liberal media in particular, is that there is a dichotomy at play here. Sierra Leone reveals a gaping chasm in the liberal press’s binary characterisation of the Trump/Brexit era as a battle between closed minded, mean spirited, inward-looking nationalism and inclusive, internationalist, at times even anti-Western progressivism. Because it would appear that high impact events (such as those where hundreds of people are violently killed), which occur in spaces and circumstances which are essentially apolitical (i.e. natural disasters) are, by virtue of being apolitical, usually low priority.
Because the disaster that has struck Freetown, despite a reflection of the underdevelopment and historic oppression of that region, was nobody’s fault. Could that have something to do which the scant coverage – that the press are only incentivised to write about or report on issues from which they can draw moral lessons and point fingers at culprits?
Consider, in contrast, the huge coverage the events in Venezuela are (rightly) getting. Perhaps because they support a powerful, political assertion: that socialism under Chavez and latterly Maduro has been utterly vilified, as its Soviet counterpart was thirty years ago. Think of another high profile story relating to South America in the past twelve months. The Chapecoense football team plane crash generated some traffic back in October. Before that, the Olympics in Rio last year. I can’t think of very much else. A mudslide in Colombia back in April which killed more than 250 people in Mocoa went largely under the radar. Incidentally, the Guardian was one of the few UK mainstream outlets to post something on Facebook. It garnered a grand total of 266 reactions and 1 comment.
The press is not only to blame. They produce a product in line with demand. On the day after the crisis, as the horrifying extent of the death toll became apparent, the most read BBC stories were as follows: 1. Train derailed. 2. N. Korea. 3. Japanese fungus. 4. Trump. 5. POA risks. 6. Brexit. 7. Grace Mugabe. 8. How to pronounce Primark. 9. Amber Heard’s Dog. 10. Rail fares. Those were the stories that the people wanted. While we can rage at the press, we have to look at our own part in the neglect of these issues, because if we don’t take much interest in those far-off parts of the world that we only see during 30 second Oxfam campaigns on TV, our press isn’t going to push those stories under our nose. True also, that many have blamed African news sources for being West-centric and neglecting their own region.
There is a legitimate critique of both sides here. The liberal press (rightly) ridicules the “look after our own first” mentality of many on the right, which bizarrely lumps the abject suffering of the world’s poorest people in with the comparatively pretty moderate disadvantage experienced by people in the UK. However, the liberal press too often cherry pick their global humanitarian causes, prioritising those which are more heavily politicised. The most obvious (and possibly only) example of the liberal press waving the humanitarian flag in any meaningful way is the refugee crisis across Europe. Little is reported on movement of displaced people across Asia, South America or Africa, probably because it is less pertinent to the narrative of the liberal media around issues like Brexit and immigration.
Although one might expect Western-based media outlets to report predominately on geopolitical issues closer to their readership, there is something contradictory about the selective reporting of the media on international issues. The atrocities of the far right in Charlottesville, and the subsequent presidential fallout, have both eclipsed other global news stories, and brought fresh impetus to commentary around the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s time to extend that maxim to other black lives, to those outside just North America and Europe, to the black lives of West Africans living in some of the poorest countries in the world. Like those hundreds of lives lost on Monday in Freetown. Those lives matter too, I hope.
We need to shift our focus to other parts of the world, to absorb our newsfeeds with the heart-breaking, eye-opening, compelling experiences of people living beyond Europe and the US. I wouldn’t mind a break from celebrity pet updates, either.