The numbers game: death, media, and the public

Jean Seaton
5 October 2005

As hurricanes Katrina and Rita retreat and some ordering of the after-effects takes place, the exact scale of what happened is still unclear. The reporting of the tragedies is also being scrutinised.

Among the topics the reporting raised is social inequality, and the ways in which modern, man-encouraged catastrophes have man-made effects. Hurricanes, like famines, produce precise maps of disadvantage, which make public usually hidden discrimination.

The media, in reporting Katrina, first told us that the hurricane “was not as bad as expected” when the water was surging into New Orleans; some outlets later described white people “foraging” for goods while black people were described as “looters”.

The media coverage also highlighted the more subtle problem of audiences’ sometimes casual disinterest in any group that looks like a victim. Surely, one reason people used their mobiles so effectively to take images in the July 2005 bombings in London was that reporting on an event (which is what everyone can now do) meant regaining some control over it: people stopped being merely victims. The response of many viewers to this trend has a chilling element: simultaneously feeling close to disasters because they can now be seen, yet feeling distanced because they are watched on a screen, part of the ongoing litany of disasters.

Jean Seaton is professor of media studies at Westminster University. She is co-author (with James Curran) of Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (5th edition, 1997) and official historian of the BBC. Her most recent book is Carnage and the Media: The Making and Breaking of News about Violence (Penguin 2005)

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Reported but uncounted

Lying around the soggy remains of the cities that have been devastated are the wrecks of discarded statistics. Were there 20,000 people in the New Orleans Superbowl or 5,000? How many people were shot: four or 120? How many died in the hospitals – despite heroic medical efforts – simply because there was no power and no water: 300 or 600? Did most people escape or not? How long is a traffic jam with 500,000 people in it? Can you really evacuate 2 million people? Why at first was it reported that 10,000 people had died when the final death toll seems to have been around 1,000? If most people escaped, was it a success rather than a failure? And, more provocatively, was the death count the only – or indeed the most important – thing in the story?

So far, at least, the mortality figures have been coming down from initial huge estimates and will now slowly creep up – but not greatly. Unlike the the death toll of the Asian tsunami, the final figure will not be unimaginably high. But how do we get our minds around the order of magnitude the disaster represents? Is it less of a story if fewer people died?

There are many reasons for the numbers to change – not least that nobody had the slightest idea of how to begin to estimate the impact of the catastrophe; they had only their eyes and, as it turned out their eyes were not necessarily reliable. It was chaos, and critically for modern eyes, it looked on television screens like a foreign, other, biblical Armageddon. Actually it reminded me of JG Ballard’s early science fiction worlds in which some quality of civilised life is withdrawn: no power and too much water, and the veneer of propriety stripped away from everybody. A very large disaster must, the scenes implied, have killed a very large number of people.

But it is also part of such disasters as the New Orleans flood that the impact was both unparalleled and patchy. If you were at the heart of the storm everything went, but ten miles away, things were untouched. By a fluke of wind or place, a house or an office might survive. Your house might fall down, but you might have survived, as many did. Many more escaped than seems likely. Sorting out real numbers is hard to do in such circumstances.

Another source of wrong numbers was the disaster plan that did exist. Journalists, hunting for “facts”, recycled the numbers of casualties that plans had estimated might result from such a catastrophe and used them as if they were descriptions of the event that had just occurred – rather than bureaucratic responses to imagined future ones. As it turned out 20,000 body-bags did not mean 20,000 dead.

Then there is the problem of the relationship between physical destruction, buildings, houses, streets, and things – all of the weighty material of American civilisation dissipated, and gone (not unlike 9/11). If so much stuff had been destroyed then surely, it seemed, so must have very many people? Needless to say, it was very difficult to get reliable information and people intent on saving others may understandably not make counting a priority. There are lots of good reasons why counting was insecure. Nevertheless, my brother, one of the British diplomats much maligned in the country’s tabloid press, sent a team from Chicago in search of British citizens, and had a remarkably accurate estimate of the casualty figures by the third day – just as the media figures started to escalate. Why didn’t the media ask people who knew?

Katrina may well go on claiming lives in unexpected ways, and these will neither be reported nor counted. A law student friend of my son had been working in New Orleans on Clive Stafford Smith’s legal programme to investigate possible cases of wrongful conviction and thus save prisoners from execution. Having managed to commandeer a car, she was penned in a thirteen-hour traffic jam that was leaving the city as the wind blew up, while the police threatened with guns anyone trying to use the other side of the motorway.

Although she managed to escape from the city, what did not escape was the painstakingly collected trial evidence and witness interviews, the years of patient work put in against a hostile judicial system to free many who had been inadequately represented and whose lives depended on files and computer records now lost for ever in the flood. So there are victims still to come.

Think of a number, then use it

Nevertheless, the main reason for the volatility of the original casualty count had at least something to do with audiences and journalism as well as practical reality. Mortality figures establish the claims of an event on our attention. A journalist who missed much of the story because she was in a remote part of Afghanistan when it happened observed that it was very odd being so out of touch. But, she added: “It was the 10,000 figure that had us all jumping about paying attention when someone got a text message – before that we had thought, oh yes, all of New Orleans flooded, not so important.” The body-count changed what it meant. So numbers have to be big enough to catch the eye.

Indeed, all is not quite what it seems on the numbers front. Mortality and casualty figures have their own life and it is often independent from that of the events they describe. Thus “10,000” dead has a long history. It means something like “an awful lot”. The original campaigning press reporting of the “the Bulgarian atrocities” in 1876 had three numbers that reoccur: 30,000 dead, our good friend 10,000 dead and a local massacre with some more precise and smaller number, “123” or “over 40 women and children”.

Interestingly, 10,000 in the late 19th century meant that the inhabitants of a town had been killed; it is – one might say – an urban sort of number. These figures re-emerged in subsequent late 19th- and early 20th-century Balkan conflicts. It would have been difficult to get accurate figures so the first modern, campaigning foreign reporters did what they could, and pitched in numbers that would impress the readers back home – “10,000” dead has popped up in urban conflicts and disasters ever since.

Another mythic number was the “700,000” Jews it was claimed had been murdered by the Nazis in 1933. Actually, the figure seems at first to have been derived from an estimate of the numbers of Armenians massacred during the first world war. It was a figure that resonated, and it was repeated in all of the major anti-fascist rallies in Britain during the 1930s: Hugh Dalton, the Labour politician and prominent anti-appeaser used it, the Archbishop of Canterbury used it, the Jewish Chronicle used it, the Chief Rabbi used it, it appears in Fabian pamphlets and Board of Deputies of British Jews’ reports.

It seemed an appallingly large number, and was used in speeches, reported in newspapers and then, authenticated by the Times and the Telegraph, recycled by politicians and campaigners. It was still being used in 1942. In 1933 it was an overestimate and of course by 1942 it was a tragically misleading underestimate, but it was a number people repeated to each other – in circumstances when precise counting was in any case impossible. The number, in a way, did its work, something very large and evil was happening, but later it obscured reality and was rendered meaningless by repetition.

The need for context

The temptation of journalists to jump on large numbers is understandable – after all they want us to attend, and they want to get their story a place in the news. Indeed, in any real and large event there is so much panic and disorder, who is to know how many have died with any accuracy?

Then there are all the familiar issues about the emotional geography of casualties. We bother more about people we feel close to, and a few casualties in one place get more attention than many casualties in a place (even if it is just down the road in fact) that we do not feel linked to. There is a media equation that produces – out of distance, number and news value – a place for any set of numbers in the story hierarchy.

This is one reason why stories need “faces”, identifiable individuals whose predicament mediates the experience more tellingly to audiences. This mechanism concentrates on the human similarity of one victim and may help us understand the plight of the many suffering or in danger. Sometimes, of course, this has distorting side-effects. Our preference for saving known victims rather than the “statistical” victims of large numbers of casualties can lead to some strange outcomes. We will the means to save one sick child (or in Britain on occasions, the one trapped dog), at the expense of delivering the most sensible relief to many. Nevertheless, the mechanism is a way of helping us understand the experience behind the numbers.

Another aspect of media numbers is that they play to what audiences can imagine. And this may be another problem. There is a wonderful, empowering moment in children’s lives when they first count to 1,000. It takes a satisfyingly long time, and in my experience, is usually accomplished in the back of a car on a lengthy holiday journey. But it gives the 7-year-old a feeling for the dimensions of the number. I wonder what feeling for big numbers we usually have?

The British sculptor, Antony Gormley, has a marvellous work, The Field, which includes models, made by community groups of small, clay, humanoid figures which he then crowds into a space: there are 4,000 of them. It looks both incalculable and human. It makes one take on both the individuality of each figure and the size of the community. It is a lesson in size. So what we need is some imaginative thinking about how to explain the numbers of casualties, some way of representing the human dimensions of tragedies in ways we can work with. Then, perhaps, the figures would be less mythic and more real, and the soggy numbers floating around New Orleans could settle down and do their work more accurately.

But what we needed during hurricane Katrina, at least as much as a reliable estimate of the dimensions of the disaster in human fatalities, was more explanation of what it meant. What is the role of New Orleans in America? It is not just a pretty place but a vital industrial port. Where have all the people gone and how are they coping? Could we deal with millions of displaced people? It is not merely a “natural” disaster but a huge social, cultural and economic one. In order to comprehend what it means we need to know a good deal more than the fleeting, attention-grabbing horror of the numbers game.

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