What's a life worth?May 13th, 2008 | By Ian Poulton | 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?