Media: Sad but true: dead Britons make better headlines better headlines

Disasters abroad get little coverage unless there are British casualties involved.
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The Independent Culture
TWELVE PEOPLE died in horrific circumstances in a single incident last week. You read all about it, you heard all about it. There was blanket coverage - photographs, graphics, special correspondents flown in, TV crews, the works.

Three hundred people died in horrific circumstances in a single incident last week. You may well have read nothing about it, unless you scan the news pages with care. The Independent carried a short story on an inside page; The Guardian and Daily Telegraph carried news-in-brief paragraphs; most papers did not mention the incident at all.

The difference between the two stories was simple. The 12 died in the French Alps. The 300 died off the coast of Indonesia when a ship sank in stormy seas. The avalanche, with a relatively small number of deaths, was a huge story; the sinking of the Indonesian ship, with its much larger death toll, was scarcely a story at all.

The glaring contrast between the two stories - tiny death toll, huge story; huge death toll, tiny story - brought into sharp focus a familiar paradox. Victoria Brittain, deputy foreign editor of The Guardian, noted the grim irony but, as she points out: "I know the geographic shape of British newspapers." Broadly, at the heart of everything, is Britain; then comes Europe and the United States; then come the events on a distant stage. In the words of Michael Williams, executive editor at The Independent: "There are rings and rings. Anything that happens in Europe and America registers high on the news Richter scale... The news editor is interpreting the resonance for the reader. It's perhaps not how it should be, but it's how it is." What appears to be a story about "them out there" is partly a story about "us back here".

In addition to the basic question of "where", there is the equally important question of "who". A key task for a news editor when scanning agency reports of a distant disaster is to check for evidence of dieu-et-mon- droit passport-carriers among the casualties, which could help propel the story on to the front page. Leonard Doyle, foreign editor at The Independent, notes: "The first question you are always asked is: 'Any Brits dead?'"

Finding a local angle for readers has always played a key role when reporting far-flung dramas. According to newspaper legend, the sinking of the Titanic was reported on the front page of the Aberdeen Daily Journal as: "Aberdeen man lost at sea." The reality is not quite so obsessive. The Journal's main headline that day proclaimed: "Atlantic disaster." It was the sub- headline which was given over to the locally significant fact: "Aberdeen man among those lost."

None the less, the spirit of the old Titanic story - it's the local death that counts, never mind all the others - holds true across Britain today.

Even a not-dead Briton may be seen as more significant in a story than a pile of dead foreigners. The Mirror's headline after last week's drama in the French Alps was: "Two Brits saved from avalanche." Live Brit heroes can help lift the story, too. A Times headline declared: "British avalanche hero saves three."

The large number of dead in the Indonesian disaster meant that at least there was a mention in parts of the British press. Other tragedies did not even make the news-in-brief - "nib" - column. News agencies reported that 20 died in floods in the Philippines last week; children were buried alive in a landslide; 30,000 people were evacuated from their homes. The news went unreported in newspapers in this country.

Part of the problem is that there are just too many horrors in the world out there. In the words of Simon Pearson, associate night editor at the Daily Telegraph: "You get disasters from Indonesia and the Philippines every month. Most of the time, they'll only make a nib. If there's something different - if a British family is on board, or if it has been attacked by pirates - that would make more."

On the one hand, news editors are in search of something new to lock on to. On the other, familiarity - the "cultural click", in one editor's phrase - is crucial. A key element of the avalanche story was that it took place in a skiing area popular with the British. In the words of John Bryant, deputy editor of The Times: "A lot of our readers will have skiied there, or know people who have. It's almost a home story, as far as we are concerned."

Any news editor recognises the queasy moment of hesitation over the (lack of) prominence for yet another tragedy in some little-visited part of the world. As Leonard Doyle argues: "You feel empathy - but what can we add?" Part of news editing is choosing stories that are significantly different from what has come before and will thus engage the reader's interest. Many admit to what Simon Pearson calls "a cynical business". But, John Bryant at The Times argues: "The real crunch comes: will the reader read it?"

The system of newsdesk certainties can receive the occasional jolt, of course. After the Michael Buerk report on the Ethiopian famine in 1984 (and its even more famous Bob Geldof knock-on effect), newspapers which only a few days earlier had been abruptly rejecting aid-agency pleas for coverage of the famine were suddenly falling over themselves to make space. The supremely dull story, reported nowhere, was suddenly transformed into a supremely dramatic story, which covered the front pages. None of the facts on the ground had changed.

That sudden overturning of newsdesk sensibilities was, however, the exception, not the rule. Tragedies involving large numbers of people happen on a daily basis. Some you will hear about. Some you won't.

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