Western Bias in Media Coverage of Climate Crises

Whilst Australia is burning, Indonesia is drowning. But are you seeing that in our media?

Having spent the majority of my childhood in Sydney, I am all too aware of the level of destruction that Australia is currently facing. Every Christmas my family and I would stay at a friend’s farm in the now notorious town of Cobargo. Present day, their farm has been reduced to ashes and scorched earth. Their neighbours, Patrick and Robert Salway, tragically lost their lives fighting to protect their property from the flames. My best friend faces constant asthma attacks caused by the incessant smoke; Canberra currently has the worst air quality of any major city in the world, with its air quality index reading 20 times above hazardous levels. Down the coast, other family friends have had to be evacuated. To say that the bushfires have obliterated the nation would be an understatement.


Foetus me circa 2010 about to shear a sheep at said farm in Cobargo & Bill shearing the sheep

Yet, in spite of all this, even I have been surprised by the blatant media bias in reporting worldwide climate crises. Whilst updates on Australia have dominated our newsfeeds, we have seen little to no coverage of the other climate crises currently raging, most notably the flooding in Jakarta. If you’re not familiar with what’s going on in Indonesia (likely because you won’t have seen it on the news), let me fill you in. Flooding occurred throughout Jakarta, Bogor, Tangeranga and Bekasi from early 1st January after 377 millimetres of rain fell in one day. This was their largest rainfall since records began back in 1886, causing the worst flooding they have experienced in decades after the Ciliwung and Cisadane rivers overflowed. Most cities have been left without power and Jakartans have been told to brace for more non-stop rain.

Not that one can quantify loss, but objectively speaking, Indonesia’s floods have been more devastating than Australia’s bushfires. Electrocution, landslides, hypothermia and drowning from the floods have killed 67 and displaced nearly 400, 000 people, leaving 40% of the country underwater. In comparison, the Aussie bushfires have caused 27 deaths and the destruction of 1,500 homes. So, where is the same concern for Jakarta in the media?  Googling ‘Australia bushfires’ gets you 315,000,000 results online whereas ‘Indonesia floods’ gets a measly 17,300,000. This may seem inconsequential, but this coverage translates into international attention and aid. Australia has received over $500 million whilst the only donation figure I could find for Indonesia was a pledge of $50,000 from the Singapore Red Cross.

This situation epitomises the cycle of the West picking and choosing which climate crises are worthy of our attention. For example, whilst the Amazonian fires raged last year, Bolivia lost 6,200 square miles of farmland to the same fires and Indonesia experienced its worst annual fire season since 2015. Did you see any of this reported in the news? No, instead we focused solely on the Amazon, arguably because, the UK annually purchases £1 billion worth of beef from Brazil’s deforested areas.

Talking to friends about disparity in media coverage, the consensus was an acknowledgement that the media’s inconsistency most likely stemmed from inherent racial bias. The British public is not interested because Indonesians don’t live in a Western, wealthy state…. basically, they’re not white. Unfortunately, research backs up this opinion. According to various studies, white people have an innate inability to fully empathise to people of colour. Forgiarini et al’s found that “Caucasian observers reacted to pain suffered by African people significantly less than to pain of Caucasian people”. This manifests in the coverage of Australia’s bushfires with the distinct lack of attention paid to the displacement of Aboriginal populations and the destruction of cultural and heritage sites.

Admittedly, when comparing Australia to Indonesia, there are other factors that come into play. Britain and Australia have a far stronger historic cultural relationship than Britain and Indonesia. After all, us Brits like to think we effectively built the nation after seizing and colonising the ‘Terra Nullis’. British immigrants are so prevalent out there that there’s designated slang: ‘pom’ or ‘pommie’. In comparison, not only do we lack this historical tie with Indonesia, but also, Indonesia has been slowly ‘drowning’ for years. Jakarta’s geographical location is so susceptible to floods that –exacerbated by the rising sea levels–  the government announced last year a plan to move their capital to Borneo.

Nevertheless, this does not change the fundamental fact that the UK media’s coverage reflects a general horror that a Western, white-majority and developed nation is suffering because of the climate crisis, not just vulnerable third world states.

Abi Smuts

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