What's a life worth?

May 13th, 2008 | By | Category: International

In the days when we lived in Northern Ireland, I heard someone once do a back of an envelope calculation on the newsworthiness of a human life lost through murder or disaster. The rough calculation was that to be at the top of the province’s news took:

  • one life lost in Northern Ireland
  • five lives lost in Great Britain
  • ten lives lost in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia or New Zealand

The number grew greater as the places became less familiar or more culturally different. When it came to Africa, there was no guarantee that even a thousand lives lost would ensure a place in a short bulletin.

There were probably examples that could have been cited to support the contention; it was an interesting observation and a point of which I became more keenly aware as I listened to the news afterwards. Sometimes news stories gained prominence simply because a network or newspaper just happened to have someone on the ground when something happened.

At the top of the news this morning, there was a report on the earthquake in China, when there could be ten thousand dead in the town of Mianzhu alone, the scale of the story was such that it could not be ignored, but the stories moved swiftly on, until we reached pointless, silly and inconsequential stuff about what an actress had worn at a film premiere.

Would the news in Ireland have been presented in a similar way on September 12th 2001?

Of course not. It was appropriate that it had a more sombre tone after the events of the day before, but are Chinese lives worth less than American lives?

The argument remoteness that China is remote and is a different culture doesn’t apply any more. At the 2006 census there were sixteen thousand Chinese officially resident in Ireland, unofficial estimates put the Chinese population here at three or four times that total. A recent report by the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission put the Chinese Community in Ireland at sixty thousand – about 1.5% of the population of the state. As a mark of respect to them, at least, might it not have been possible to have suspended fascination with what a celebrity wore on a night out, and all the other trivial items, and to have had some substantial reporting, even if that meant taking syndicated material?

Even in this age of equality, are some lives still more important than others?

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  1. I was having similar thoughts there yesterday. However, I was mightily impressed with the organisation and swift response of the Chinese authorities to the disaster. Such a shame similar comments couldn’t be made about the devestation in Burma which seems to be well down the news list in order of importance. Maybe the images are just becoming too harrowing for main news bulletins if some of the scenes shown on news 24 are anything to go by.

  2. Burma is still on the top of the list here as we have aid agencies waiting for Visa’s to get into the country. The junta there are behaving intolerably and the wet rag that is the UN is doing nothing about it. I agree with Paula, China’s swift response has been amazing by contrast . . .then the next news item is about Nicole Kidman’s botox obsession . . .who formulates the news, the writers or the readers? Perhaps that’s why I don’t buy newspapers and try to avoid tabloid TV news.

  3. Ian

    I didn’t get to leave a comment yesterday, but found this today:


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