Houston / Sierra Leone: Do Black Lives Matter Less?


Houston and the state of Texas are getting to grips one of the nations most serious floods. So far at least 30 people have died, including a family of six. It is impossible not to be moved by the human stories we hear and the sheer scale of displacement of tens of thousands of people.

Sadly though the UK news media are often selective about what disasters they report and how they report it, in particular the less importance that  appears to put on non-Western lives lost in natural disasters. Less than two weeks ago a huge mudslide in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, killed at least 500 people. Local reports put the death toll at 1,000 with some estimates, including from the Red Cross say the final toll could be well in the 000's. Over 100 dead children alone were pulled out of the mud in the first days.

Yet media coverage of Houston has already massively exceeded that of Freetown. No one can argue the magnifying glass effect; the Texan state capital is in fact 800 miles further away from London than the Sierra Leonean capital.

Reporting natural disasters should not be a numbers game alone, but the human scale of the Freetown tragedy is so much greater than Houston that the question must be asked – do black lives really matter?

Compared to Texas, most of the British media underplayed the scale of the mudslides. A Google News search reveals that the Daily Telegraph ran 58 online stories on Houston and just four for Sierra Leone, a ratio of 14 to one. The Sun, never the most preoccupied with foreign news, was even more disproportionate in its coverage with 16 articles about the US floods, and just one for the West African state.

And the BBC in particular Radio 4’s Today Programme fairs little better, demonstrating just how the news producers seek to focus attention. Radio 4’s Today programme never had the Sierra Leone story as their top story, despite the hundreds of deaths, but in sharp contrast Houston has not only been its top story, yesterday and today, and probably tomorrow too, but has interviewed experts, politicians and others to get in depth analysis.

More generally, the BBC News published 19 online articles on Sierra Leone in the 15 days since it happened on 14th August. By contrast, they ran 32 pieces on the Houston floods.

Furthermore, a key reason for the huge loss of life in Seirra Leone in comparison to Houston, Texas, is poverty. Freetown's frail  infastructure; roads, houses, emergency services, has meant that when a natural disaster such as the flood and landslide  occurs the consequences are that much greater.

The race disparity though is not confined to none white countries,within the Western natural disaster narrative, the race inequality is either ignored, or as we witnessed after hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans, which saw reporters characterise Black people as 'looters' and white people as 'heroes'.

Equally out of the news in any significant way has also been the monsoon floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, which has so far claimed over 1,200 lives. Around 16 million people have been impacted by the floods in the Asian sub-continent, incredible numbers, but much of this has gone unreported. The Telegraph only managed three stories about this massive tragedy, including one article that doubled-up with the partition anniversary under the headline ‘Indians brave floodwaters to hoist flags on 70th anniversary of independence’.

BBC News online were particularly poor with just six stories, one of which was about rescuing elephants. Elsewhere in the world, a landslide in the Democratic Republic of Congo killed at least 200 people, and several have perished in Niger floods, none of those stories merited a mention anywhere.

The disparities in the volume of news stories is only half the picture. It is not just about column inches and broadcast time. The main difference in media coverage between tragedies in the West and the global South are the way they are covered. Major incidents in regions like Europe, north America, Australia are defined by human stories. Personal accounts of the unfolding chaos; stories of heroism; survival in the face of overwhelming odds.

When tragedy befalls Africa, Asia and the global South, what coverage we are offered is far less likely to centre on human stories such as fear and heroism, and more likely to feature impersonal estimates of the number of dead, interviews with aid workers and pictures of people digging through rubble with their bare hands. Pictures of dead black and brown bodies seem more acceptable, and references to abject poverty in a way that leaves the ready or watcher thinking their plight is in part their own doing. Without human stories, we evoke less empathy. Without empathy we have less action.

So how, why do the media act in such a way? Why do these often Oxbridge educated editors and senior editorial staff view two natural disasters-almost back to back- on massively different scales? What are they missing that we don’t?

When major strife befalls the Anglosphere, and countries with a large white population, the nature of journalism changes from detached observation to identification. An undiverse media, which is particularly lacking BME decision makers at the level of editor, news desk editor, and senior producer, habitually does not commit the same kind of resources to such stories in the black and brown regions of the world.

Those decisions are made not just on grounds of general ‘newsworthiness’ but also a sense of what matters to the audience. While there is overlap between the two, the latter relates more to the image of the audience in the minds of the decision-makers. If senior media executives only image people who look like them and their social circles, they will more likely discriminate against stories that to them ‘don’t matter’ as much regardless of the unfolding tragedy. It’s unconscious bias at its worst. Some may even say, it’s not even unconscious.

As consumers of the media, we are forced to see the world through the eyes of the controller. And these last few weeks we’ve crudely seen what the controllers want to see and focus on, and what they will pay scan regard to. Sadly, and unequivocally the latter is Black lives

Can it change, we’ll yes, but not without reflection, and certainly not without greater representation at a senior level. Will any of that happen? The amount of times i’ve been into news media almost all white offices, sadly I’d have to conclude that change will not occur anytime soon.

Lester Holloway