Counting the Cost

10 October 2005

After reading Jean Seaton’s recent article for openDemocracy, “The Numbers Game”, I was struck by the prominence of casualty figures littering the headlines about the recent earthquake in Pakistan. The true scale of the tragedy in the country’s northern provinces has been revealed through an overall death toll that has risen steadily – and often shockingly – since the earthquake struck on Saturday 8th October.

It is hard to know how to react to the prominence of such figures. Seaton’s article questions whether death counts should be the most important thing in a story and calls for journalists to move beyond the attention-grabbing tactics of the numbers game. On the one hand she is right. We must continually be wary of an eagerness by news agencies to guesstimate casualty figures in order to be the first to claim a new headline. In these cases the pain and suffering that lies behind the figures can be lost or easily forgotten amidst a battle of numbers.

On the other hand news agencies have a duty to seek out information and continually update reports as more is known, a task made especially difficult in remote areas like Kashmir where accurate information is hard to come by. Also, the prominence of casualty figures in the headlines has, as it did for the Asian Tsunami, alerted the world to the scale of the disaster and prompted large-scale international aid efforts – the other figures making the headlines.

It is perhaps too early to be able to assess the media’s response to the tragedy in Pakistan. Estimates of the scale of the disaster in human fatalities have their time and place and, perhaps, will always be the first news 'stories' from any disaster zone. When more is known we must move beyond such attention-grabbing numbers to more thoughtful assessments of, for example, why so many people lost their lives, how the disaster has affected people in the region and what it could mean for the future of Pakistan.

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