Scott Hanselman

[OT] 22,000 dead, and This White Guy - Western Media and the Devaluing of Brown People

December 28, 2004 Comment on this post [19] Posted in Musings
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This is a technical blog, so note that I don't do this all the time so forgive me ahead of time if you don't like my rants.

I'm looking at the home page of  There are currently over 22,000 brown people dead, and apparently this white guy. I feel for his family, but I feel more for the countless hundreds of thousands of displaced and suffering others.

I am tired of the American Media (last night it was ABC News) who spend 5 minutes on a massive natural disasters, and then gloss over it when we are told "and no Americans were injured." Notice the text of this CNN blurb - 22,000 dead and 27 Western People, which details the counts of British, French and Italians.

This is unspeakably ethnocentric and it makes me a little ill.  I'm not trying to be P.C. here, but these are humans, and whether it was a hundred Somali Fisherman, or this guy from Illinois, I expect more from a leading news organization. This is like a home-town newspaper concerned about its native son away on mission.

We must never forget that tommorow isn't promised to us. One day there will be an earthquake off the coast of Oregon. No doubt that will get media coverage.

God help us all, but thanks for the time I've had.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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December 28, 2004 4:09
I could not agree with you more. I have found in my traveling and watching news here and abroad that our media is VERY self centered. What I mean is, if it does not concern us (and by us I mean US) personally, it is not newsworthy. That is a sad way to call yourself a newsperson, in my book anyway. In such a small global community it is this very attitude of elitism that contributes to a world vision of Americans as ego-centric, elitist, racist morons. I grieve for all the people who have been effected by this tragic event. I fear that we have not seen the end of its destruction. I understand that World Vision has already deployed relief workers and plan on seeing how I can assist them. I am too pregnant to go, but at least I can send some financial help. Thank you for this blog and your oppinion.
December 28, 2004 5:22
Woah. First, it doesn't say "Western People", or "White People", it says "non-nationals", most likely tourists (which incidentally is reaching a count of many hundreds). Second, is it bad to talk about a tragedy a world away in personal terms, like for the neighbors and family of Evanston, Illinois? If you recall, after the Towers people made a point that it wasn't just an attack on Americans--many people of other nationalities lost their lives. It was reported so, not only by the US press, but by the press of other countries, who covered their own losses in a personal way.

It's a difficult time right now, a stunning loss of life. Save the criticism and lashing out for issues where change can and should be made--in the case of personal reporting, and for the no-less tragic loss of Ben, along with the other countless individual fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters who lost their lives--let the tragedy be spoken of freely, honestly, openly. The expression of grief, shock and sorrow should be unfettered by what is politically acceptable, what other countries will think of us as Americans, how we might appear; those concerns are the very definition of self-centeredness. Grief any other way is staged.

I hope the illness that you feel when reading about the loss of life of non-nationals becomes sorrow for their families, no less deprived than any other whose losses are hidden in the numbers being reported.
December 28, 2004 5:40
No question, as a country, we're self-absorbed. At least, our media is self-absorbed, and we can only assume that their sales and marketing folks have done their job sufficiently to know what sells the news in mainstream America.

It's sad, possibly dangerous, and, in this case, understandable.

At the moment I got notice of this posting, I was reflecting on my own responses. For some reason the numbers seem to matter first: 22,000 killed, 33 foot waves, 9.0 on the Ricter. I scan the news quickly to gather these details. I commit them to memory so I can quote them in conversations.

Then I try to understand them. Twenty-two thousand dead means something. I should be able to feel the loss, something visceral, like a tremor in the Force, but it's hard to grasp. Even poring over the photos of the destruction, it's hard to make it real. I have to calculate it into something else. In my neighborhood there's an average of 3 people per household...22,000 people means 7,333 my neighborhood there's just over 3,000 households...if we include the neighborhood to the east.... But still, it's hard to really feel it.

Then, I think about the waves. I've spent a little time in the surf. I've been slammed by 5 foot waves that pounded me into the sand and started dragging me to the sea. A 33 foot wave terrifies me. I know something about what that means. It's the stuff of nightmares. This is my way in--picturing myself, my wife, and my child standing on the beach before a 33 foot wave. This makes it personal; this makes it real.

I guess what I'm getting at is that it is hard to grasp things of this size. We have to bring it down to the small, to make it personal, in order to get the response that it deserves. And it is only when I've personalized the horror that I can project it onto those affected. Another way to think about the photo of Ben Ables of Evanston, Illinois is that it helps people to see their brother, their son, their best friend, their lover in the disaster, and that makes it real. Is it a problem that mainstream America doesn't get the same feelings from a picture of Buyung Lelana of Aceh, Sumatra? Probably. But I wouldn't want to minimize what we're asking of them.

December 28, 2004 5:43
Scott, you are right on. I will just add that what becomes obvious to you when exposed by crisis, its constantly present irritation for people of different cultural perception (such as expats like myself). In fact i'm as so digusted by US media that i don't have TV in the house for many years.

My external observer viewpoint is that US media have long sold out any credibility it had as reliable news source. Nowdays they just whoring themselves out to get highest rating as specific form of entertainment. Entertainment is not about reporting news, its about reporting what people want to hear and making as much coin as you can out of it. Chorus of willing and compliant media yelping few years back on "undeniable massive Saddam's WMDs stockpiles" in media (without SINGLE dissenting voice of real investigative journalist) was quite sobering litmus test. guess there is no investigative journalist left. bunch of " soap opera news" like CNN, and Fox in glorified role of party-line propoganda channel.

simply depressing.
December 28, 2004 8:02
It's not very different than the way insurance premiums are calculated-- babies aren't worth as much as doctors/lawyers, etc. I guess that can be extended to ethnicity and nationality as well.

Not pretty, but a fact of life.
December 28, 2004 8:14
You lost me there Jeff, what are you saying? The media takes per-capita income into consideration when selecting subjects for story focus?
December 28, 2004 8:31
If media takes per-capita income into consideration, why isn't Japan included?
December 28, 2004 10:15
I don't remember what the story was, but I stopped using CNN years ago because of the same sick feeling that you had. I see they haven't changed. I now use BBC News ( most of the time.
December 28, 2004 11:08
After Scott posted this, I went to check the BBC news website. Needless to say, their headlines were focused on the tragedy and not the relatively few non-nationals. They did have an article on the British citizens who had lost their lives, but it was buried at least two clicks off the main page - unlike CNN. Tony, I'm with you.
December 28, 2004 19:51
it's worth noting that this is not uncommon for cnn and their ilk - look at the countless pointless hours spent on the laci peterson case, when similar types of things happen to variously brown americans all the time but are less newsworthy because of skin color/economic status/prettiness/whatever. sigh. television news is a wasteland.
December 28, 2004 21:27
This is exactly why I'm not sorry my TV only gets one channel (and it happens to be PBS). Between "news" organizations like Fox and CNN and reality TV the picture (pun intended) is pretty bleak. Oh well, I suppose bread and cicuses is what it's all about these days. If only we could get someone interested in giving out the bread part. :)
I get most of my news these days from NPR and the New York Times ( Whenever I see "mainstream" media at the gym, etc. I'm pretty appalled.
December 28, 2004 23:02
I totally agree. Danish media do the same. The main headline on (Denmark's Radio) is "Uncertainty about 200 Danes". They also mention something about missing Swedes and Norwegians. You actually have to look elsewhere for info about the total. Whenever a disaster strikes, the story is "500 people dead, no Danes" - as if that means there's no problem. That's not journalism. It's entertainment, and that makes me sick.
December 29, 2004 2:26
I agree with Jonathan in that it is not completely absurd for a culture to attempt to personalize the news. If instead of CNN you were watching Telemundo and they reported that 35 Mexicans were missing and showed a picture of a woman from Guadalajara in an attempt to bring it closer to home, would that make you angry?

I think I can see where Scott is coming from..but not only about MSM but about the over-extending reach of the US Government/Media/Culture. For example, as a US Citizen I believe that it's not our job to monitor the ongoing election in the Ukraine...and I don't want any group outside of the US monitoring our national election either.

I've read two very interesting books on the medium of television and how it affects us. I think that many of the ideas apply to other mediums in MSM. I have not had a TV in six years and get my news online. (I've created a nice .Net screenscraper that produces my RSS Feed. ;)

C:\Media>Television.exe -exit

"Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" by Jerry Mander:

"Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman
December 29, 2004 3:57
Being a brown person myself, I've gotten used to the devaluation of people of color. I said "gotten used to," mind you, not come to accept or become enured to. I was offended when the first sidebar story to pop up on my Netscape browser's news page was about the Czech model who was injured in the tsunamis -- along with at lest 40,000 nameless Asians and Africans. I disagree with the people who say race has nothing to do with valuation of human life by Americans. It definitely does. For example, the majority of children available for adoption in this country are nonwhite. They remain unadopted because the people most able to afford to adopt -- white middle-class Americans -- consider them unacceptable.
December 29, 2004 10:45
I'm from Sri Lanka, one of the countries worst hit by this quake.

Although we can't do much about the dead, over a million people in Sri Lanka alone have been displaced and are facing various hardships ranging from the spread of water borne diseases to lack of clean water and shelter.

The Red Cross is doing a wonderful job in helping out, your smallest of donations along with those of the people you know (relations, colleagues) will go a long way towards helping out those who have been battered by this quake.

Thank you,
December 30, 2004 1:10
Complex issues involved here, not something I think we can easily generalize. So many emotions at work here. I love the way Michael Kelly (see 3rd comment) put things into perspective, and although his analysis may not represent truth as seen from the point of view of those reporting the news for the sake of selling news, it is a good way to look at these types of issues. I guess I can see how it *does* help to make things more readily close to home by highlighting a specific individual's tragedy, but at the same time, we are a country of all colors and nationalities - we always have been - and it *would* be nice to see news stories about people of "other" nationalities. As a result of my daily use of the internet and the developer community which thrives thereon, I *do* feel much closer to the rest of the world than ever before, and do find interest in stories concerning those of other countries. While we may fly a different flag, we are all brothers and sisters in the grand scheme of things.
December 30, 2004 2:04
I think there's been a progression.

First, there were the numbers: 22,000 (at the time) dead, 33 foot waves, 9.0 on the Richter. Second, we checked to see if we were OK, i.e. how many Americans died. Third, we cried over the children. And now, were focused on the on-going struggle to survive. Peoples' hearts (American hearts) are pouring out to those that are suffering, regardless of race. While I don't believe this one event erases our racist and nationalistic tendencies, it may just be an exception to the rule.
December 30, 2004 12:43
> You lost me there Jeff, what are you saying? The media takes per-capita income into consideration when selecting subjects for story focus?

Just that value of human life is very relative, although in theory it shouldn't be.
January 01, 2005 15:44
spot on analysis Scott.

We refer to this as 'racially-adjusted' reporting.

This means that, for example, two famous (white) actors getting engaged will be a bigger news story than the death of a hundred 'brown' people. there is some kind of attenuation played out in the minds of editors that racially-adjusts the events into some very distorted proportion.

good work with encouraging further donation Scott, -- the scale of this disaster is just staggering.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.