Tuesday, December 28, 2004

SUFFER THE CHILDREN? There are no victims of the earthquake more heartbreaking than the children. The lead photo in this morning's New York Times is particularly wrenching: it depicts an Indian mother wailing over the bodies of dead children, some of them hers.

But it would appear that the sheer emotion of this tragedy has clouded the Times' news judgment. Consider the headline: "Toll in Undersea Earthquake Passes 25,000; a Third of the Dead Are Said to Be Children." Now, granted, the tone of the headline is just-the-facts. But by emphasizing that a third of those killed were children, the clear message is that they were disproportionately the victims of this awful tragedy.

The main story, by Seth Mydans, adds to that impression in the second paragraph:

The toll from the disaster - with more than 25,000 dead and many unaccounted for - came into sharper relief on a day when it seemed increasingly clear that at least a third of the dead were children, according to estimates by aid officials.

Mydans's seventh paragraph expands on this - but contains an odd kicker:

The realization began to emerge Tuesday that the dead included an exceptionally high number of children who, aid officials suggested, were least able to grab onto trees or boats when the deadly waves smashed through villages and over beaches. Children make up at least half the population of Asia.

What? Let's back up for a moment. You don't have to be a math whiz to realize that if a third of the victims are children, but if at least half of all Asians are children, then, if anything, the victims of the earthquake were disproportionately adults.

Does this distinction matter? Not very much, perhaps. Journalists are struggling to make sense of these terrible events, and it's inevitable that some hyperbole is going to creep into their coverage. But editors back in the home office, at least, ought to be able to stop and think before putting together a front page that can't hold up its own internal logic.

TALK SOUP. Bob Garfield either wasn't thinking, or has a finely honed sense of irony. Actually, listeners already know he's dripping with irony. So the question is whether or not he was thinking.

I was listening to the podcast of NPR's On the Media while driving to work this morning when I heard Garfield's report on the media's overreliance on a few much-quoted experts, like congressional analyst Norman Ornstein and consumer advocate Gene Kimmelman.

So far, so good. But who was Garfield's main talking head? Why, it was Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, and no slouch himself in the talking-head department. Indeed, a search of just "major papers" on Lexis-Nexis for the past 12 months reveals that Thompson was trotted out for a quote 289 times.

Thompson is used as often as he is because he's accessible, and he always has something interesting to say. As they say in the trade, he gives good phone. In fact, I called upon him as recently as last week, for a piece I was writing on FCC chairman Michael Powell.

Still, there was something perversely amusing about listening to Thompson talk with Garfield about the need for journalists to expand their rolodexes beyond the usual suspects.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Obviously a tragedy, but a good observation concerning the children as a proportion of the population. Reminds me of an alarming commercial running last year from some alarm company, to wit: "25% of breakins occur between Memorial Day and Labor Day; is your house safe?" Well, let's see, End of May to beginning of September is 3 months - does thing mean anything?

Anonymous said...

Nature abhors a vacuum and these guys are trying to make a living filling it. Was it Dorothy Parker (or some other Algonquin Round Table type) who said:
"if you have nothing good to say about someone, ...say it to me"? Ironic that in an age of instant communication no one saw the tsunami coming and after it happened, we are spoonfed casualty counts on Drudge, with no one apparently able to get a macro view of things...

Anonymous said...

I heard a representative from Unicef this morning on the radio. (94.1 in Atlanta, I'm a Boston ex-pat) He also mentioned that almost 1/3 of the casualties are from children. In the very next sentence he said that 39% of the population in these areas are children, and then stated that children had difficulty swimming, holding onto branches, etc.

It's spreading.

Gard said...

The use of such figures by TIME reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon where the pointey-haired manager was complaining that 40% of the sick days were used on Monday and Fridays. Like the old attage says; Statistics lie, and liars use statistics.

Secret Agent Cathy said...

I also heard that "On the Media" piece and wondered where the disclaimer was, since Bob Garfield does so often make snarky meta-comments. In his introduction to the item, in fact, he went through a list of topics and their pundits, and when he got to "advertising," paused and said, "Well . . . modesty forbids."

Anonymous said...

Well, there is something inherently more tragic about the death of a child than an adult, don't you think?

Anyway, this is common in reporting of tragedies - it's usually the phrase "women and children" that's used to make a story seem even more tragic. Children, as I say, I understand, but women's lives are more valuable than men's? A common double-standard that for some reason goes unremarked on by feminists.