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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

What the media coverage of Beirut shows us: a skewed approach to global disasters

Felicity Graham explores the problems with Western attitudes toward global disasters and humanitarianism.

Just one week ago, disaster struck Lebanon, a country already on its knees following a series of financial crises and an increasingly incompetent government. The ammonium-nitrate fuelled blast, which demolished a significant fraction of the city’s economic hub and took at least 200 lives, was shared widely across Western media via video footage, and within minutes viewers across the world shared their feelings of shock and sorrow on social media. The Twitter hashtag #prayforbeirut quickly began ‘trending’, and scrolling through my Instagram feed I noticed popular influencer-led brands promoting donation pages such the British Red Cross and Lebanon’s grass-roots NGO, Live Love Beirut. What the media failed to share was the fact that, across the same 24-hour period, anti-government extremists detonated an explosive device in Taimani, Kabul, killing numerous locals, and floods in Yemen left at least 20 people dead. 4th August 2020 also marked the anniversary of the 2019 Cairo car-bomb terrorist attack; an event which, at the time, saw minimal coverage.

The events of 2020 have taught me a lot about the nature of humanitarianism and aid in the western world. It seems we, the Western public, are unable to deal with multiple disasters at once; excited by the hard-hitting headlines of BBC News, one week our sole focus is Black Lives Matter, and the next it is Beirut. In our Covid-19-locked-down, virtual world, humanitarian crises became reduced to ‘trends’, and the name of George Floyd started being utilised as a prop by brands keen to demonstrate their ‘wokeness’.

With a lost life being appropriated for the sole purpose of upping sales, it is no wonder that our world quickly forgets the human reality of such crises. Our attention span is almost non-existent; as soon as disasters become popularised by the media, we have heard enough, and with the help of fresh ‘Breaking News’ our thoughts are diverted elsewhere. Needless to say, black lives are still being unjustly lost, and Beirut is still suffering immensely from its blast-induced catastrophe.

Whilst this disposable nature of human emergencies may simply fuel an ideological crisis for us, the consequences are all too real in the rest of the world. Since the media have exhausted the West’s enthusiasm to combat the crisis in Yemen, it is rarely mentioned, despite the fact that a four-year famine is still ravaging the nation, and a child under five dies every 10 minutes from preventable causes. Meanwhile, in the UK, over-ambitious Chancellor Rishi Sunak introduces to us the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ Scheme, prompting Brits to spend over £105.4 million on food out in just one week. This makes front-page news.

Our perception of human crises as expendable is not the only flaw of Western humanitarian aid. More often than not, Western news outlets prioritise Western disasters. We may certainly level this criticism against the news outlets themselves, yet the mainstream media understands its viewers perfectly; xenophobic as we often subconsciously are, we care more about our own kind, and sympathise more greatly with those who live similar lives. Hence, the media extensively platformed the Australian bush fires of 2019-2020, and, despite being the tenth largest economy by GDP in the world in 2018, the country received 140 million AUD in donations to aid its post-disaster rebuilding programme. Simultaneously, halfway across the world, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, millions of Congolese people were in need of humanitarian assistance. The country still requires a massive 1.82 billion USD in order to rebuild itself following years of oppression, violence and health emergencies, including Ebola and the longest measles outbreak in the country’s history. Yet, lacking air-time on Western news platforms, the issue will for a long time remain unresolved.

Responding to our need for drama, entertainment and excitement, the West’s ‘breaking news’ approach to news coverage of crises is more destructive than we know. Long-term catastrophes, which no longer spark enthusiasm, are simply forgotten; such is the case with the long-fought wars against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and such is the case in war-torn Yemen. Despite the increased efforts of the likes of Extinction Rebellion & Greta Thunberg, the urgent issue of climate change is being continuously swept under the carpet. In the East, the freedom-fighting citizens of Hong Kong have been left to their own devices; as with other crises, the West have been distracted by their own issues – tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

Manifesting a white-saviour complex, yet demonstrating a truly self-interested approach at heart, the Western mainstream media is broken. Yet, our sub-standard reactions to humanitarian catastrophes are partly due to social media platforms too; in our newly virtual world, it is all too easy to perceive real issues as simply ‘trends’ that can be followed on Twitter and quickly forgotten. In a world only becoming more treacherous as a consequence of climate change, this model of disaster management and humanitarian aid needs a sincere rethink.

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