In recent weeks, three catastrophic hurricanes have caused mass devastation. These hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—have provided numerous lessons for people to think about.
The lesson I want to focus on for this blog post is that the United States (or at least news media in the United States) only cares about a natural disaster if it hits one or more states.
The media’s treatment of Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria is a sad example of this. Last time I checked, losses from Maria in Puerto Rico totaled $72 billion—staggering when you consider the fact that storm costs are equal to nearly three quarters of the entire territory’s GDP of just over $100 billion! A humanitarian crisis is unfolding there, a crisis that may only be rivaled by few hurricanes in our entire nation’s history. Yet, since Puerto Rico is a territory instead of a state, Harvey and Irma received wall-to-wall coverage for days while Maria only got a mention of a few minutes at most until allegations of the federal government’s neglect began to dominate headlines.
If Puerto Rico got second class media coverage from Maria, then one could only imagine how much worse the media coverage was of Maria during and after hitting Dominica. The prime minister of Dominica had to be rescued and then said that the nation “lost all that money can buy.” There are reports saying that 98% of buildings in Dominica were damaged. Dominica is also in heavy need of humanitarian help. Unfortunately, American news media has reported very little on this, and I had to turn to news sources from Trinidad and Tobago (an island nation in the same region as Dominica) in order to get consistent and reliable information on Dominica.
In terms of media coverage, places like Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, and the Bahamas suffered the same relative lack of American media coverage during Hurricane Irma, even though all these places got pounded by a Category 5 hurricane. Instead, all of the focus was on the possibility of Irma hitting Florida, not on any impacts in other parts of the world.
However, there was one thing going for media coverage of Dominica with Maria, or several Caribbean nations with Irma: they were all in the path of a hurricane that was expected to hit a U.S. state or territory. Because of that fact alone, all of these nations got at least some level of media coverage.
The same could not be said about India with the catastrophic flooding that parts of the country recently received. The flooding rains in India were not heading to a U.S. state or territory. They were not heading to Florida, Texas, or even Puerto Rico. The flooding was on the other side of the globe, and as a result I heard practically zero media coverage about it. Or, at the very least, zero coverage until I listened to the BBC, which admittedly has a stake in what’s happening in India since India is part of the British Commonwealth.
Clearly, the United States, or at the very least American media, seems to care very little about natural disasters that don’t strike one of the fifty states.
But why is the lack of focus on disasters outside of the states unjust? It is unjust because, by largely ignoring people outside of the States, a message is being sent that not all lives matter. In fact, a message has been sent that the lives of people in the States matter most, that the lives of people in territories like Puerto Rico matter a little, and that the lives of people outside of U.S. states and territories don’t matter at all.