COLUMN-The landslide of news

by Reuters
Thursday, 27 March 2014 15:54 GMT

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Jack Shafer

March 27 (Reuters) - Of the many ways nature can kill you, the landslide must be the most cruel. Not as cosmically spectacular as the tectonic tantrum of the earthquake or as catastrophic as pure weather-borne calamities (floods, hurricanes, tornados), the mudslide lies in wait like a heart attack, springing its localized force without much, if any, warning. It's filthy, it's bone-crushing, and it's suffocating. Any trust you have in terra firma will promptly be upended.

The press coverage of Saturday's landslide in Oso, Wash., which as of this writing has claimed at least 25 lives, has expressed this horror with hours of broadcast and thousands of column inches of newsprint - and continues. Yesterday's New York Times made the Oso landslide its top story, complete with slideshow and interactive map of the disaster.

Landslides produce more terror than other disasters whose death counts go much higher - plane crashes, earthquakes, fires, freak weather, et al. - because they are so rare. Thanks to television news, our minds have become socialized to the damage done by hurricanes and tornados. But landslides introduce us to the unfamiliar. "It feels like you are in not a junkyard, but in a landfill," said the sister of one of the Oso victims as she surveyed the site. "You've got sewer pipes. You've got dirty diapers."

Not to diminish the cataclysm and the human loss, but for all its fearful power and creepiness, the landslide isn't much of a killer - at least not in America. According to a Wikipedia chart of major landslides worldwide since 1900, only 11 have struck the United States, including the one in Oso. When you factor out landslides propagated by exploding volcanos (Mount St. Helens), earthquake-tsunamis (Seward, Alaska, and Lituya Bay, Alaska) and hurricanes (Nelson County, Va.), the death count falls very low. Before Oso, fewer than two dozen people had died in all other major U.S. landslides, which you could count on two fingers (Gros Ventre, Wyo., and La Conchita, Calif.).

The rarity and low death counts of landslides make them no less fearsome. Like snow rollers, ice circles, supermoons, ball lightning, sun dogs, mammatus clouds, sun pillars, and other exceptional and mysterious phenomena, the landslide commands our attention and that of journalists. The loss of life - especially corpses that can't easily be recovered or located - has given the Oso story legs that will likely carry it for weeks. There probably exists somewhere in a mathematician's imagination a news formula that could predict how and why a story keeps rolling in the news, a topic I recently studied in my column about the alleged "over-coverage" of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

If I had Nate Silver on retainer, I'd assign him to capture the how-a-story-keeps-rolling formula and bring it to me. But as he's busy, I'll trace the outlines of what commands the time and attention of readers and journalists in the consumption and production of disaster news.

Frequency: The more frequent a calamity, the less arresting both readers and journalists find it. Murders and vehicular deaths, even drug-related deaths, can pile up before journalists make a big deal out of them. The exception is a surge in deaths that eclipses previous records, hence giving a story an easily digested headline and a news peg.

The news generated by the crash of a commuter jet in the Pacific Northwest would not equal the coverage accorded the Oso landslide, even if it killed as many people. Conventional plane crashes, while still relatively rare, are well understood events, and the questions posed by them can so easily be retrieved from the archives (weather; pilot error; mechanical failure; terrorism, etc.) that they make for generic and temporary coverage.

Avalanches, much more frequent and deadly than landslides, don't enthrall readers and journalists because our curiosity about how they form and how and why they kill has been adequately covered. The landslide, as an atypical disaster, demands great concentration by the press. Most reporters (outside of landslide territory) have probably never covered one, leaving hundreds of questions to ask and answer. Explainers must be posed and sorted out. Follow-ups assigned. Historical records searched. Curiosity sated.

Proximity: The near disaster is always more newsworthy than the far disaster, no matter what its cause. Landslides kill few people in America, but many overseas. Yet great numbers of dead often fail to move the news needle. Who among us recalls reading about the Kedarnath landslides (5,700 dead), the Gansu mudslides (1,287 dead), or the Southern Leyte mudslide (1,126 dead), just to name a few landslides on the other side of the world in the past 10 years?

I came to this insight thanks to Alexander Cockburn's essay, "Death Rampant! Readers Rejoice," which appeared in the December 1973 issue of magazine. "The death of one famous American can always be recorded, however tedious the circumstances of his or her demise," he wrote. But it takes the deaths of 10 northern Europeans to "deserve" the coverage given to one American.

The ratios quickly increase from there. One dead American equals 30 dead southern Europeans; 100 Persians or Latin Americans; 200-300 southeast Asians; and of Indians, Africans, and Chinese, Cockburn despairingly wrote, "No sense of number is involved at all. Indeed, experts have calculated that roughly fifty thousand Indians are equal in term of news value  to ten Americans."

If, for example, a landslide washed three New Jerseyans down the Palisades and to their deaths at the bottom of the Hudson River, the New York Times would not cease in its coverage until another equal disaster pushed the Palisades off Page One. "Drama is all, and distance the great anesthetist," is how Cockburn put it.

Affinity: Geographical closeness determines the coverage given a disaster, but so does the personal affinity the newsroom feels for the victims, a point Cockburn also makes. Hence, catastrophes unleashed on Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand feel almost homegrown to American news-hands because their victims speak our language (if poorly).

Adapting Cockburn here, I'd say that a car crash that killed eight people in Australia would probably produce more news than a canyon bus-plunge taking 116 lives in one of Mexico's border states - unless there were a couple of Americans on the bus, in which case the bus-plunge would produce more U.S. news. (An affinity corollary worth stating here: To maximize your chance of earning an obituary in a newspaper, make sure to work at that newspaper for five or six years before you die.)

I would cast none of these coverage rules in iron. The staying power of the Malaysia MH370 story would seem to refute my frequency, proximity and affinity precepts. I'd argue that the story would not have lasted as long, had it not been for the mysteriousness of the disaster and the incompetence of the Malaysian government. Also, the proliferation of amateur video and the ubiquity of the Web have increased the depth, volume and durability of disaster stories from around the world.

We might not yet inhabit a global village, but these days middle-class readers in the United States identify more strongly with middle-class Asian airline passengers than Cockburn would have predicted 40 years ago.

Every death, natural or unnatural, is potential news. The mental machinery that elevates one cataclysm over another reveals our cultural biases, our news IQ, and our deepest forebodings. By hugging the news we confirm that we have survived. (Jack Shafer)

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