Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Tragedies and Statistics

Last night's CBS world news covered the tsunami disaster, and followed the story with one about a young female soldier who was killed while returning from duty in Iraq. I wondered which story affected people more: the one in which horrifying disaster scenes are shown, with wreckage as far as the eye can see, and with staggering statistics about the dead and orphaned, or the story which showed a photo of a young lady with an all-american face, in uniform, a photo that might have come off the neighbor's wall. I admit that I was saddened by both stories, and though I recognize that the tsunami disaster has caused magnitudes more pain and suffering, the story did not cause me magnitudes more grief.

Then there's this, from a story in the Boston Globe today:

"A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Just because the famous aphorism is attributed to Joseph Stalin doesn't mean it isn't true. It is a commonplace of the pulpit and the editorial page that we are all joined in one great brotherhood of man and woman, that "each man's joy is joy to me, each man's grief is my own," to cite a popular hymn. But for many years I have wondered if that is true. I think compassion is like a radar signal that loses force the further it radiates from our hearts.


Human apathy toward mass deprivation is legendary. Aid organizations know this. For decades, the relief organization Save the Children has urged first-world donors to underwrite the well-being of a specific child somewhere in the Third World. Why? Because no one cares about saving children in the abstract. But people do care about saving Marzina, an 8-year-old from Bangladesh, who is currently seeking a sponsor.

The media likewise know that gargantuan disaster stories have to be correctly packaged to capture readers' attention. There is an old, politically incorrect saying in newsrooms: How do you change a front-page story about massive flood devastation into a 50-word news brief buried inside the paper? Just add two words: "In India."

(link via ALDaily)

And then, of course, this scene from Collateral comes to mind:

Vincent: Max, six billion people on the planet, you're getting bent out of shape cause of one fat guy.
Max: Well, who was he?
Vincent: What do you care? Have you ever heard of Rwanda?
Max: Yes, I know Rwanda.
Vincent: Well, tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody's killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?
Max: What?
Vincent: Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whales, Greenpeace, or something? No. I off one fat Angelino and you throw a hissy fit.
Max: Man, I don't know any Rwandans.
Vincent: You don't know the guy in the trunk, either.

1 comment:

SugarDuck said...

And from the Daily Show book "America (The Book)":

Determining Newsworthniness - Body Count Coversion Rate:

2000 Massacred Congolese = 500 Drowned Bangladeshis = 45 Fire-Bombed Iraqis = 12 Carbombed Europeans = 1 Snipered American