Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Image over substance

What’s the difference between the Burma Cyclone and the Boxing Day Tsunami?

And the answer is not a joke.

The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, which killed 230,000 people across South East Asia, shocked people across the world into donating £3.5billion (USD 7 million).

The recent Burma Cyclone had a far more immediately devastating effect and the final death total is expected to exceed 500,000 – more than twice that of the Tsunami.

So why are our TV stations and newspapers not full of wall-to-wall pleas for donations like they were after the Tsunami?

The difference is, with virtually no photographic images and TV footage of the devastation, the media has not had the raw ingredients to produce stories which pull at the heartstrings.

The Burmese government, who have refused access to their country of both the press and aid agencies, have to take their share of the blame for that, especially as their needless stubbornness undoubtedly caused the needless death of thousands more of its people.

But the situation has highlighted how important images – be they still or moving – and journalists are in the world today. No press, no exposure, no public sympathy, no financial support.

Just because we can’t see rotting corpses and starving children after a disaster does not mean that disaster is any less tragic and worthy of aid. But because we can’t see so many images of it does mean that it will get less attention and less aid.

It’s a basic principle, but one that works. It’s why there are advertisements, it’s why journalists like me get invited on trips abroad for free. Attention is everything, even the suffering need it to help stop the suffering. Not very funny but it’s true.

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