Without "proximity", news alone fails to move us
By Sami Sillanpää
On Boxing Day a year ago, the phone rang at my home in Beijing. It was a Norwegian journalist telling me that there had been an undersea earthquake west of Sumatra and that the ensuing tsunami waves had also struck the tourist beaches of Thailand's Andaman Sea coastline.
It sounded like the kind of news item that would require our attention on site. My Norwegian colleague lamented that he couldn't travel, because his visa was with the Chinese authorities, being renewed. As for me, I was lying in bed in Beijing running a high temperature.
For the next three days, I followed on TV as events unfolded and the Indian Ocean tsunami developed into one of the biggest news stories of the century.
Every journalist who got in late on the news-gathering over the tsunami has his or her explanation for why it happened that way.
The first Finnish journalist to file a report from the site of the disaster, and the first to send home the news that the tsunami was also a catastrophe for the many Finnish tourists on holiday in the region, was Kari Lumikero of the commercial TV channel MTV3.
Later, Lumikero deservedly won the Journalist of the Year Award given out by the Swedish publishing group Bonniers.
The tsunami was the biggest disaster to hit the Finns for decades. The various print and electronic media were naturally filled up with news from the region. In the media criticism after the event, the Finnish news sources were charged not just with being sluggish in getting off the mark, but also with wallowing in the suffering of the victims.
The critical barbs were not without foundation. And yet one rather larger issue about the entire discussion left me troubled. Were the Finns ultimately given altogether the wrong picture of the tsunami?
Thailand was not the epicentre of the catastrophe. Above all, the tsunami was not a crisis that overwhelmed Western tourists.
The waves destroyed whole areas of coastline in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar (the former Burma), in the Maldives, the Seychelles, and even as far away as Somalia on the western shores of the Indian Ocean. Nearly 230,000 people are now believed to have perished, and 95% of them were Asian.
In the worst affected area of all, Aceh Province at the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, it looked to all intents and purposes as though someone had just detonated an atom bomb.
The waves washed away entire villages and large parts of sizeable cities in a swath stretching nearly 700 kilometres up and down the coast. At least 128,000 Aceh residents died, and most of the bodies were never found.
In Thailand, a few villages were inundated and the aggregate figure for the dead and missing was somewhat over 8,000.
This is not to belittle the suffering of anyone involved. The tsunami was hell let loose on earth for each and every one of its victims.
Every person who fought and struggled for his or her life - be they Finnish or Indian or from wheresoever - was in straits that nobody would wish upon a fellow human being. The pain of the loss of a loved one cannot be assuaged by knowing that others also suffered.
Nevertheless, it is important that we keep in mind the scale of the tsunami. Many media sources in Finland and elsewhere forgot almost completely the areas most ravaged on December 26th. Was it cynicism, even racism?
I would like to believe that the explanation is a more human one.
Physical or psychological closeness is an important criterion of news. Journalists do not make news items simply of what is large and important, but also about matters that touch them and touch their audience or readers. In the case of the tsunami, the dreadful fate of the Finns naturally left nobody unmoved.
And yet responsible journalism demands something more. The task of foreign correspondents and reporters is to help the readers to see the world in a broader context. To provide an opportunity to feel strongly about matters that are more distant and less familiar.
After the tsunami, Helsingin Sanomat despatched reporters and photographers to Sri Lanka, to Thailand, and to Aceh Province in Indonesia. Many other broadsheet papers around the world did just the same.
The cries for help from afar were relayed to the readers. The world responded with an unprecedented outpouring of donations and shipments of aid.
What the media cannot shape or determine is what precisely it is that stirs feelings in people.
Who can honestly say that the earthquake in Northern Pakistan in October generated the same urgent sense of wanting to help as was produced by the tsunami? It is pointless to blame the media. Those pictures of grieving Pakistani mothers amid the ruins have been seen in the newspapers and on television.
Without proximity to the reader, news alone does not stir up the emotions or empathy.
Now that a year has passed since the waves rolled in, the countries that suffered deserve to have the right sort of image portrayed of them.
It is not fair on Thailand if it continues to be seen as a charnel house of horror, destroyed by the tsunami. Yes, in some fishing villages close to Phuket life is still difficult, and the tourist beaches of Khao Lak are still very far from normal.
And yet Thailand and its vitally important tourist industry have recovered quickly. The Thais themselves hope that in the eyes of foreigners their country will be seen once more as a joyful and sunny place, as it was before.
People in the tsunami-affected areas of Aceh, Sri Lanka, and India want the world to remember that they are still suffering, 12 months on. A couple of million people were forced to leave their homes, and the majority of them still live in tents or in other temporary shelter. Fresh water is available only from the tanks of aid organisations. Their fields and crops were taken by the sea. They have no work.
Their suffering does not need to touch us personally, but that does not mean it should not still be news.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 18.12.2005
The writer is a Helsingin Sanomat Asian correspondent. He has made two visits this year to the tsunami-hit areas of Aceh and Southern Thailand.
SAMI SILLANPÄÄ / Helsingin Sanomat