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Two Maritime Crises and the ‘100-to-One’ Rule

The media focus on the deaths of Americans and Europeans at the expense of other nations fuels resentment, and lays bare the dysfunctional economics of modern journalism

Italian children place paper boats on the water’s edge in memory of the deaths at sea of 77 migrant children in the first nine weeks of 2016. Photo: Associated Press/Alamy

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Across Africa and parts of the Middle East, memes flew through the ether this month, comparing the West’s reaction to the missing five-man submarine with the loss of an estimated 500 refugees from a sunken ship in the Mediterranean. 

The submarine was reported missing just days after a ship carrying hundreds of migrants sank en route to either Italy or Greece. Between 500 and 750 people are thought to have drowned, mainly women and children who were below deck, sheltering from the sun, storm and sea. There was a brief rescue effort while Mediterranean nations squabbled over accountability for the deaths. 

Just days later, the Titan, a submersible craft, went missing on its way down to the wreck of the Titanic in the Atlantic. On board were four passengers, three of them British, and the pilot. It’s an expensive expedition combining tourism and “citizen science.’’ 

The United States and Canada dispatched surveillance aircraft and shipping to search for the missing submarine in an operation that cost millions of dollars and lasted several days. It was thought the submariners had 90 hours of oxygen on board the vessel, making it a race against time. 

Rwanda’s Human Rights Problem Makes it a Dangerous Destination for Migrants

Fuelling Resentment

The submarine’s disappearance bounced the refugee shipwreck from the front pages, hence the unkind memes in Africa and the Middle East. And in a demonstration of sickening irony, it drove home the ‘100-to-one rule’ that African journalists understand and accept with cynicism and resentment.

Essentially, it means that one dead American or European in a troubled nation will make the news, but unless there are 100 dead black or brown people there’s no story. Sadly, it’s true across the political spectrum, and truer still on this side of the Atlantic. 

It’s the same rule that keeps Ukraine’s war with Russia on the front pages while consigning the Congo War to obscurity. Tens of thousands have died terrible deaths in Ukraine, but over 3 million Congolais have died, and are still dying, in the worst conflict since World War II. 

There’s little point in beating oneself up about this. Social scientists have long identified the reasons, but flail about in the dark for solutions. The hopeless truth is that humans have more interest in people who look like them than in people who don’t – no matter their ideological leaning. They’re also more likely to trust people who look like them, and to fear people who don’t – and that applies in equal measure to people who read the Guardian as it does to Daily Mail readers. 

Of course, none of this can console the bereaved of either of these maritime tragedies. Both deserve respect and sympathy – from everyone. But in an increasingly globalised world, the press might benefit from taking a long, cold look at how it reports, and how often, from across the planet.

Moving so rapidly on from 500 dead in the Med to five missing in the Atlantic neatly shows why so much resentment is directed at Western nations. So does the disparity in the cost of the rescue operations. As Barack Obama said, speaking at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, ‘’The fact that that (the submersible) has gotten so much more attention than the 700 who sank… that’s an untenable situation.’’ It was a brave thing to say. 

If that’s an unreasonable comparison because a submersible craft can be recovered and a ship can’t, people will still make it. This is the source of the bitterness and of conspiracy theories about Western abuses of power that circulate across Africa and the Middle East, often with Russian help. 

The Economics of Myopia

It wasn’t always like this, at least in Britain. In the 1960s, at the height of decolonisation, the UK’s papers were obsessed with Africa, usually reporting with wild prejudice that played on stereotypes. When new and inexperienced governments stumbled, the press responded with delight. A mercifully small number of papers continue in this tradition, if far less often. 

The imbalance in the news is also a straightforward matter of economics and businesses. Looming over any principled journalistic idealism is the simple truth that news is a commodity with a shelf-life comparable to bread. Newspapers have to make money if they’re to survive, and if the public won’t read and pay for news that’s “too foreign,’’ why carry it? Put simply, local news subsidises foreign news – and it’s a great deal more expensive and dangerous to cover the war in the Congo than the war in Ukraine. 

That’s the Catch-22 enigma at the heart of journalism’s culture. What was Albert S. Ochs’ ‘’all the news that’s fit to print’’ has become ‘’all the news that’s cost-effective.’’ And it’s partly why a desperate rescue mission in the Atlantic bounced a doomed rescue mission in the Mediterranean from the papers. Partly, but not entirely. The cost-effectiveness of carrying news is a symptom. The cause is our failure to accept a planet populated by people of equal worth if they’re not ‘’like us.’’ The refugees who perished in the Med were ‘’othered,’’ even trivialised because being different means being less important. 

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