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Things I Hate About TV: Counting Americans in a tragedy

by Joel Keller, posted Jun 2nd 2009 3:31PM
Air France disasterI'm sure most of you are glued to your TVs for news of what happened to Air France flight 447, which disappeared over the Atlantic yesterday while en route from Buenos Aires Rio to Paris. Not only is any major accident like that a fascinating, newsworthy event, but the added mystery of the plane's disappearance makes the story even more compelling.

Some of you reading this may have friends or family among the 228 people on the flight, which makes this a personal tragedy for a lot of people. But if you listen to the news media, it seems like most of the people who have been potentially lost on the flight aren't such a big deal. After all, "there were two Americans" on that flight, you see, and, as far as the U.S. media is concerned, their loss is more of a tragedy than the loss of any of the others.
This happens in the news any time a major disaster occurs overseas: they enumerate the dead, then include the modifier, "including xx Americans." The fact that they always seem to do that has never sat well with me.

Why highlight the Americans over everyone else? Does the fact that most of the people on that Air France flight, for instance, were probably either Europeans or Brazilians make Americans feel better? Does it give us that amount of distance to make it feel like it couldn't have been one of us on that plane / caught in that tsunami / blown up in that terrorist attack?

It just smacks of xenophobia, which is odd when a fair number of our residents are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. People in this country have families living all over the world; any tragedy anywhere has the potential to affect a large amount of American families even if the victims themselves aren't Americans. In addition, we're in a global economy where people move and travel overseas all the time, so it doesn't seem that shocking anymore when an American is caught in a disaster in even the most remote corners of the planet.

But I guess in a lot of ways, news broadcasts still need to connect with an audience, and instead of adapting for the times, news writers fall back on the same old tropes they've relied on for decades. If they continue to think that saying "and there were xx Americans" is a way to liven their copy, they're going to keep doing it. I just wish most of them entered the 21st century and realized that a loss is a loss, and it's a sad occurrence no matter where the victims come from.

What do you folks think? Let me know in the comments.

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Like Bruce said, every country does this. I lived in Japan for 7 years. Same deal. This is in no way an American phenomenon.

July 05 2009 at 5:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The crass ting is that "only" 228 people died and I have someone I went to school with who knew people on that plane. Talk about "six degrees". It was one degree for me :-(

June 09 2009 at 3:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I whole heartedly agree. When I first saw the news I looked at my wife and said how discustingly pathetic our news media is. They had a camera outside the house of the family members of the American victims. We got a lot of it here since the house they live in is only about 10 miles from my house. It angered me to no end. There is a limit to what the public needs to know. Mention it, show a picture, give us the news, but leave the family the hell alone.

Fast forward to last night when in a casual phone call to my mother, I realized that I know the victims son and daughter in law. The daughter in law is immediate family. I saw them just a few months ago. This has really reinforced my negative option of the media. Especially the local news here in north Houston. Its as if sticking a camera in the faces of greiving people is news? I have always had a very low opion of local news. I NEVER watch it, I have BOYCOTTED their advertisers, literally. The only reason I saw this story only because my wife had it on the tube.
Now I know the victims personally. I love to say 'I told you so'

Prayers for my little cousin and her husband. Prayers for every victim and their familys, regardless where they lived. Lets get those cameras off their lawns and out of their faces.
I challenge you to read the news. Only the news. Don't view the coverage of family members. I bet you can't do it.
I can.

June 07 2009 at 11:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

because it is preventative answer to a question almost every American (or any other national) would ask: how many Americans (or any other nationals) died in the crash. People would want to know the numbers, and it should not be viewed as "not caring" for others, but as a logical follow up question.

June 05 2009 at 2:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That's nothing! This American has lived in Japan for over ten years now and the Japanese are #1 in this category! If you watch the Olympics here you often won't see who won the gold, silver, or bronze unless that person is Japanese or a superstar at their sport. So many times I've screamed at the t.v., "Don't show me Mr. 33rd Place Japanese Guy! Show me the champions!!!" It's ridiculous!! And it's the same with any international tragedy. It doesn't really concern most Japanese unless one or more of their own were involved.

June 05 2009 at 11:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That American lives are somehow more important than non-American lives isn't at all what the media's saying. Or even trying to say.

The reality of the situation is that there ARE people who genuinely don't care about things that happen to non-Americans. If it's not in "my" backyard, some people seem to feel, then it doesn't matter to me.

Yes. We really ARE that self-centered.

I work in the media, and I can't count the number of times over the years that I've seen stories like this and have heard viewers shrug them off because they feel it has nothing to do with them ONLY because no one from this country was involved.

Here's another example: severe weather coverage. There can be a massive storm system 60 miles away and moving our way. It can be spawning off tornadoes that send people running for their lives. And if our weather guys interrupt programming to talk about a system that is moving our way, even for two minutes or so, the phones start ringing off the hook because viewers are angry we're interrupting their shows. They don't care that lives are potentially being lost and that property is potentially being destroyed. They're mad because it's not happening RIGHT HERE at this moment, so we're clearly wasting their time.

The media, Joel, doesn't establish this mindset: it merely REFLECTS the mindset that's already there.

Frankly, if mentioning how many Americans are involved in a tragedy that happens somewhere else is the only way to get some of the more self-centered among us to stop for a second and THINK about an actual loss of life, then by all means count 'em up.

And when we news consumers are willing to step out of our own private little world long enough to mourn a loss of life for a loss of life's sake, regardless of where the victims are from, THAT'S when you'll be more likely not to be told how many victims are specifically American.

June 03 2009 at 9:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am an American and find this article not only offensive but completely uncalled for. I live in Los Angeles and have heard coverage of the accident with no mention of the two Americans aboard just that 228 people were aboard. I and everyone I have talked to feels equally bad for ALL (32 nationalities) the passengers aboard the flight as well as their grieving families. You have a lot of nerve bashing Americans using a tragedy as your platform, I think many others will agree with me on this. Aren't journalists supposed to have compassion, maybe you should rethink your career.

My heart goes out to each and everyone that has been affected by this horrible accident.



June 03 2009 at 3:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great story Joel. I agree to a certain extend but find myself not moved if a plane goes down if the added "And xx Germans" isn't in the story. I find myself not caring about plane crashes except if they are spectacular and if 300 Liberian's die because they tapped a pipeline and somebody thought it's a good idea to light a ciggie and everything goes boom, I also only care if there's footage of 500 foot high flames.

To be honest I don't really think it's xenophobia. The human brain insulates itself from grief with this mechanism and you are right what's so despicable about this is that IF the newscaster does NOT add the "And there were xx of your fellow countrymen on board" then you don't really care. They have to do it to make you listen. It's just how we as humans work. Empathy is something that needs a goal and if those people aren't part of your "herd" then you don't care.

The more centric approach to this is the general ignorance of the US newsmedia towards international news. I often enough am angry about newscasts here in germany where they pick spectacular imagery of US catastrophes simply because there's more of those in the US than in Germany and if it is spectacular (like I stated above) you tend to watch. Otherwise you don't.

But to get back to my point: I visited the US in 2003 and 2006 and each time I was horrified of the way they put together the 11 O'clock news. It's as if the rest of the world does not exist, whereas over here we almost ALWAYS also get the other side of a story - if not that night then the next night when the story is continuing. Meaning you aren't only TOLD that Al Jazeera reported something, you get the actual footage they brought, you get interviews with people from the country the news is about et cetera. In the US the news looks something like "We we we we we we we - there's a cute polar bear in a zoo in berlin - here's your local weather".

Just try it out yourself. Watch BBC world if you get it. "Fair and balanced" isn't a slogan there, it's the foundation of the british way to report the news.

June 03 2009 at 11:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't have a problem with the US media reporting on the # of Americans that were on the flight - reporters from other countries will report the # of people from their country that were on the flight. Chinese-speaking newscasts based in Los Angeles report the number of such passengers from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong - anyone considered "Chinese".

Not a problem at all. If you don't like the US-centric news, you could watch BBC World News on PBS or something...

June 03 2009 at 12:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There is a degree of truth in what most of you are saying.
While it is true that every country will highlight the number of their citizens lost in a plane crash such as the one Air France suffered; it is sad to see that for so many Americans, the fact that only two U.S. citizens were on board makes it an almost inconsequential event.
Over two hundred people died! It is a horrific accident that will affect the lives of thousands of people around the world.
Yes, more than likely we won't know any of them personally, but that doesn't diminish the human tragedy.
Maybe I am the weird one, but to me, a human life is a human life. Of course, I would be devastated had anyone I know been on that flight. But I am as saddened by the two Americans who died, as I am about the sixty or so French, fifty-some Brazilians, twenty or so Germans, and so on... I didn't know any of them, but they all happen to be people, probably nice people, most of them. I don't think that God will let the two Americans in Heaven right away, and take his time on the other two hundred or so people. He will, no doubt, welcome all of them with the same love, and they will all be embracing their loved ones who died before them.
On a separate note, I completely agree with the person who said "Thank-God for the BBC" - the coverage of International news by our networks is generally pitiful. It lacks any objectivity to even be called reporting, it is insulting to the viewer's intelligence and more often than not, it's only appealing to the lowest common denominator. I wish they stopped treating us like idiots who won't understand the complexities of world affairs.

June 02 2009 at 11:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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