Photo: Rain in Chennai from yashima flickr photo stream

Rarely a week goes by without a natural disaster hitting the headlines. This month, news coverage has included the eruption of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, flooding in the Turkish city of Ankara, and storms in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan in northern India. For the media – whether television, online, newspapers or magazines – natural disasters are a prime source of dramatic tales of loss and heroism, often accompanied by striking photographs and video footage

Coverage of these events is also vital to the public interest. Many natural disasters take place in developing nations, well away from the core consumers of the world’s media in the West. In many cases, almost everything Western people know about what is happening in disaster zones comes from mainstream media reports. Even in the age of social media and so-called ‘citizen journalists’, professional journalists’ coverage of natural disasters shapes our understanding of the events.

With the media playing such a central role in our perception of natural disasters, it seems timely and legitimate to ask how news organisations are doing their job. Are they presenting fair and balanced accounts of disasters? Do reports reflect the extent of the disaster and the impact on survivors?

Clearly, what constitutes fair and balanced coverage is a subjective issue. But a growing body of research suggests the media’s approach to natural disasters is rather more complex than, for example, reporting the events with the largest loss of life or the most widespread impact.

With most of the world’s media owned by companies in the developed world – and especially Western nations such as the US and Europe – a big factor in the news selection process is the cultural connection between the location of the disaster and the media consumers. For example, how much do audiences know about the country? Do they go there on holiday? Do developed nations have business interests there? Is it a former colony?

More than a decade ago, a ground-breaking study, the CARMA Report (2006), compared media coverage of six natural disasters, finding that there appeared to be no link between the scale of a disaster and media interest in the story. For example, the Kashmir Earthquake of October 2005, and the earthquake in Bam, Iran, in December 2003, attracted similar levels of media reporting despite a massive difference in numbers of people killed and injured (approx. 26,000 were killed in Bam, and over 90,000 in Kashmir). More worrying, the report identified that Western self-interest appeared to be a prerequisite for significant coverage of humanitarian crises and significant disparity in the volume and nature of reporting.

Of the disasters cited in the study, Hurricane Katrina, (which hit the US Gulf coast in August 2005), killed and displaced the fewest people. Yet it received far more attention in the global media than any of the other disasters that the study authors reviewed. Similarly, coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 was shaped by the involvement and deaths of Westerners; about 40 per cent of all the coverage on the effects of the tsunami focused on the Westerners, though they accounted for less than 1 per cent of the victims

It is not surprising that the Western media assume Western people will be more interested in Western disasters. But this media bias is evident not only in the level of coverage but also in the way in which victims are represented. In our recent article we argue that a more complex form of cultural discrimination appears to be at work.

Our study compared reporting of floods in Chennai, India and northern England in 5 British newspapers. Both events took place around the same time in 2015. Judged by death toll, Chennai was the world’s worst flood of the year, killing 325 people, affecting 1.8 million and causing damaged estimated at $2.2 billion. The northern England flood was the worst flood in Europe in 2015, though no lives were lost. About 48,000 people were affected, with damage estimated at $1.2 billion.

Understandably, the British newspapers devoted considerably more column inches and internet space to the flood in northern England. But more striking was the way in which the victims were portrayed.

The northern England disaster was described in terms that brought the experiences of the victims close to the reader. Reporting was vivid and highly emotional, with extensive personal information about individuals and how they and their communities and networks had been affected.

By contrast, the reports about Chennai were far more dispassionate. Victims were portrayed as distant, their lives and experiences having little in common with readers. In some cases, the newspapers even seemed to present the victims’ plight as a form of entertainment, using imagery and cultural references from action films to add pace and drama.

Of course, it is easy to dismiss these critiques as a simple matter of geographical proximity; it is much easier for British newspapers to gain access to flood survivors in England than in India. But social media has revolutionised the way in which the media locate personal stories, and mobile and digital technology mean geography is far less of a barrier to reporting than it was even a decade ago. Our research provides evidence that the Western media treat disaster victims in the developing world differently from Western victims, portraying them as less important.

What does this mean for the natural disaster coverage we see almost every day? There can be little doubt that news organisations play an important role in highlighting the plight of victims; for example, coverage can encourage donations to relief efforts.

Yet we are also left with the uneasy feeling that some Western news organisations’ attitudes to natural disasters may be embedded with inequality and racism. Debates about immigration and migration are a key political battleground in many parts of the world, and there is a strong argument that media coverage of immigration, asylum seekers and refugees promotes mistrust of people from outside the West. Media reports about victims of floods and other natural disasters can potentially add to this framing of events in ways that are insidious and normalised

About the authors: Paul Solman is a freelance writer and visiting lecturer in journalism and media at Brunel University and City, University of London. A former national newspaper journalist, he has more than 30 years’ experience working on international and business news.

Lesley Henderson is a Cost of Living editor and regular contributor to the blog.