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The Chennai Floods: A Social and Media Failure

January 24, 2016

 

For several weeks starting in mid-November, much of Chennai, India was underwater. The monsoon rains and subsequent flooding killed 514 people, and 28,000 were rescued from rising floodwaters. The airport, a major international hub in the region, was closed for several days due to water on the tarmacs and runways.  That’s right: a city of nearly five million people was flooded, causing major devastation to the region, and you likely did not hear anything about it.

As a person with family in Chennai, this isn’t just a hypothetical case of disproportionate media coverage anymore – this is personal. What is most disappointing about this situation is the fact that the international community seemed to collectively address this issue just a few short weeks ago. When the attacks in Paris occurred, the world community was quick to note the tragic events in Beirut and Baghdad on the same day, calling the media out for its obvious Western bias. Similarly, in the case of the Chennai floods, it would appear that the actions of two Californian terrorists were far more newsworthy than more than 500 deaths in southern India. Where was that same outrage? How can we consider ourselves global citizens if our attention span for death and destruction is exclusively honed in to the plight of the West, tuning out the struggles of the rest of the world?

Searches of pages and pages of BBC, CNN, and New York Times “International” sections revealed one or two articles about the flooding in southern India. In fact, the flooding barely even made the news in other parts of India, revealing a nasty northern-centric streak in the Indian national press. There is simply no excuse for this kind of ignorance in news media. Even more disappointing is the absence of support from social media. At the time of the attacks in France, thousands tweeted their support and extended their condolences to those in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad, while Facebook was forced to introduce a Lebanese filter for profile pictures alongside its French one, after criticism for obvious western bias. One month later, however, it seems the international community failed in widening its scope, erasing non-Western experiences and tragedies from the international consciousness and reporting only on the events of the West. While climate talks at the COP21 conference took place in Paris, and the resilience of the French spirit was lauded time and again, the people of Chennai suffered the devastating consequences of climate change which COP21 aimed to end. While France received an international outpouring of solidarity, the message to the people of Chennai has been a resounding digital yawn. It would seem that we have used up our finite pot of compassion for the year.

It is one thing to actually keep the media honest. It is another thing entirely to simply decry media attempts to cover a story with international implications when convenient. The sad truth is that we only seem to care about the world we live in when something happens in a Western nation. We bring up the media’s hypocrisy and limited coverage when it is convenient, but the minute a present and imminent threat disappears from the Western world, the troubles of the rest of the world seem to melt away. We cannot shy away from this fact. We must recognize it, and we must try to be better.

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