What we give our attention (speaks volumes)

This will take less than five minutes.

Have a look at this illustration, and read the very short piece that accompanies the illustration.

With so much attention being paid to the death of one man from Ebola in Dallas — and news reports about the positive test result of the woman who cared for him — this short piece stopped me in my tracks.

The illustrator, Andre Carrilho, had this to say:

“I think unfortunately, in the Western media, there are first-world diseases and third-world diseases, and the attention devoted to the latter depends on the threat they pose to us, not on a universal measure of human suffering. A death in Africa, or Asia for that matter, should be as tragic as a death in Europe or the USA, and it doesn’t seem to be.”

Is he right? If so, what’s the remedy?

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10 Responses to What we give our attention (speaks volumes)

  1. I am so glad that you shared this with us, Katherine.
    I have been thinking a lot about this aspect of the Ebola coverage all week and that illustration really sparked an emotional response from me, because it feels kind of personal, and I will explain why.
    I thought that it was interesting how this disease had been killing people since March and yet only after ONE infected person entered into the United States, all of a sudden everyone is up in arms. And it wasn’t just American media, that would have been easy to write off as the “selfish American media that only care about themselves and their well-being” but it was also the European media, a continent that has strong ties to Africa due to its colonial past, meaning they have many immigrants in their countries from these affected areas or descendants of immigrants from these countries. I am an African-born European, so it was especially hurtful to see this behavior from the media. It felt close to home.

    What makes this even more difficult is that the panic that is ensued by the media promotes and perpetuates racial divides – we see this in that the family of the man who died is blaming the hospital for not giving adequate treatment, perhaps because of his race – and it will make life a lot more difficult for Liberian immigrants as well as immigrants from those affected areas. How will those kids be treated in school? How will the surrounding community treat them? With contempt, perhaps.

    It’s sad because I am black and an African and although my country is not one of the affected areas, it is sad to see how insensitive and unloving people can be towards minorities. It makes me sick to my stomach because this is how Africans have been treated for so long, with colonialism, slavery, and disregard from the West. In one word it’s injustice and the majority of the media is doing nothing but perpetuating it.

  2. nmk99d says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Carrilho. It’s actually incredibly saddening to me as a journalist to realize how focused the American media is on ourselves. Sure, we should report on our home country first, and some would argue that their job at certain media outlets is only to report on local news. That’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean that Texas publications like the Star-Telegram should completely refrain from mentioning how many people have been killed by Ebola other than Duncan. The article I’m referring to (http://www.star-telegram.com/2014/10/08/6184403/hospital-dallas-ebola-patient.html) only mentions another country once, and it just says “even though he told a nurse he was from Liberia, the heart of the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa.” Sure, that’s true that it’s been a devastating outbreak, but how devastating? How many people have been affected? Why West Africa? As a reader, I want more information. As a journalist, I feel like it’s unfair to only give Liberia/West Africa a half-sentence mention.

  3. agorbachev says:

    I agree with everything that has been said above.

    Still, it would be interesting to compare how the Ebola outbreak is covered by media in, say, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal. (It’s a shame I don’t know that many languages to actually perform this analysis.) The first country has more that 2,000 confirmed Ebola cases (and it’s actually Sierra Leone and not Liberia that has been affected most heavily by the disease), the second has 19, and the third just one. I would presume — though, again, it still has to be proven — that Nigerian media are probably talking about 19 people that have or had Ebola in their country much more than about what’s happening in Sierra Leone.

    And I think we discussed it in class at some point: something that’s happening close to you somehow feels more important that something that’s happening far away — even if the situation is much more serious and worrisome there. And that works both for reporters and the audience, I guess.

    (Of course, this observation doesn’t make the point about a colonial legacy less right. It’s true that Western media in general tend to ignore or at least underreport what’s happening in Africa.)

  4. Kasia says:

    Guimel is right–this is injustice. But it’s also unsurprising. The difference in the attention given to Ebola cases in the U.S. and Africa feeds right into the West’s narrative of Africa for the better part of history. First of all, there’s a nebulous understanding of Africa as one entity rather than a continent filled with multiple peoples and cultures that have been living in arbitrary national borders since the late nineteenth century. We also see this stock but paradoxical image of The African: the exotic Other, but ill and poor, living in a hut and eating scraps. It’s a vile generalization of a billion people, but the stories we hear about Ebola fit right into that fiction of the Starving Sick African. Therefore, hearing about an African with Ebola doesn’t strike an intense emotional chord for many Western readers.

    When journalists report on Africans who suffer and die from Ebola, they cannot just use images of Africans as victims so that American readers can say “aw, too bad” and move on with their day. They must write about people from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria as they are: complex individuals (real people!) with families and houses and cars and Facebook accounts and boyfriends and best friends whose lives are being destroyed because of systemic problems within power systems that allow this disease to spread beyond control.

    • Well said, Kasia. I think people don’t realize that for every poor African in a hut there are thousands of others that live normal lives, not unlike lives lived in the West albeit with much less resources. Myself and my family are an example of that. When I am in Angola I definitely don’t sleep in a hut or eat scraps, my mom has her own apartment, we have a car, we have internet and there are plenty of people living that way as well.

      But I am glad that we got to read that new york times article from Patson’s blog post. I think its important we have more stories such as those that explain to the American people the cultural context.

  5. madialexander says:

    Guimel and Kasia both have excellent points. And I noticed something else equally as wrong today. The nurse who was diagnosed with Ebola in Spain and the nurse in Dallas both have dogs. I have seen more posts about these dogs from people who didn’t say anything until Ebola hit the Western world. Frankly it’s sickening, but it’s also how news works. As much as we want to care about what’s happening in Africa, it’s a world away. The average American has no idea what Africa is like and probably can’t even locate Liberia on a map. There’s been more outrage over one woman’s dog than there has been 4,000 deaths in Africa. It’s a grotesque example of how self-centered people can be at times.

  6. I agree with Carrilho. The coverage of ebola has almost made the US look ignorant to the rest of the world. The coverage of this disease has always been about how it will effect the United States, rarely does any coverage mention other countries. The statistics in this article shocked me and I don’t think they should have. Maybe I haven’t read enough on it and that’s my fault but another part of me wonders if the coverage I’ve seen hasn’t mentioned a total death number or other statistics. I think the media has shaped Americans to question how diseases in other countries can harm them instead of making them question what’s being done in the country it started. Are people getting help? How did it start? Americans almost go into a panic and it makes us look selfish. I think it’s fine to have coverage about diseases and how they can effect Americans but they need to have information about other countries as well. We can’t just pretend that diseases in other countries don’t affect us until they come to the states.

  7. zhouhang92 says:

    Someone once said: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This sentence was first about the cruelty of politics, but I think it’s also accurate to describe the situation here. The single death of Thomas Duncan was thought as a tragedy and raised so much attention from the media in America. But before him, the thousands of deaths in Africa were just numbers. Journalists didn’t care who these people were, how they died or what we could do to save the rest. The press is a major contributor to those pictures in people’s heads, but it failed to tell the severe situation of Ebola in Africa. Numbers are cold and are not enough. A single death is a tragedy and thousands of deaths should be considered as a disaster. Every life is equal and should be respected. As journalists, we can tell more about Ebola than just numbers.

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