Making Sense of the Disproportionate Rescue Efforts and Media Coverage of the Titan Tragedy.
Human civilisation and society have always operated on the presumption, promise and ideal of fairness. That is why we have political ideologies like socialism, communism, and even capitalism. That’s why we have legal systems, social welfare systems, a national health service, etcetera. And we require fairness in the way the media covers stories. So, when the Titan, a seemingly improvised sub carrying five wealthy people, went missing in the middle of the Atlantic ocean and the media gave the search minute by minute coverage and countries hurried to send rescue equipment to the cost of millions to taxpayers, many started to draw comparisons with another vessel that had sunk in the Mediterranean only a few days prior.
The ship in the Mediterranean had been carrying different cargo. It had on it the lives and hopes of more than five hundred desperate men, women, and children fleeing destitution, prosecution, and death. It could and should have been rescued easily. It was floating for hours before it went down. And yet the Greek coast guard or other vessels could not be bothered. And the media carried the story for a day or two and moved on. To many those two responses were jarring and infuriating.
One vessel received minute by minute covering and had millions thrown at an impossible rescue mission to find five people. The other received sparce news coverage and had no resources provided to rescue and save the lives of more than five hundred people. How can that be? Many on independent media platforms started to question the glaring difference. Even Barack Obama weighed in. Was it the usual story of rich folk, especially billionaires, receiving preferential treatment while the poor drowned? And in this case not metaphorically. Yes and No.
Research has since proven that we care less about multitudes than we do about individuals. That’s why aid agencies working to eliminate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa will not make an advert with the appalling number of preventable deaths. Instead, they show you one girl, Maria. Maria has a family. She loves school and hopes to become a nurse one day. But one mosquito bite can cut short Maria’s dreams and that of her family. All it takes is one mosquito net for £5 to save Maria. It’s a compelling story because there is an individual in it. And as humans, we identify and sympathise and empathise with individuals. It is more powerful to tell you a story about one person than it is to share facts like - 100 000 kids die of malaria each year (not true stat)
And that human instinct was clearly at play in the case of the Titan. There were five people on board and to most of us, they became real. They had names and stories that we could read about. There was so much written about the CEO and the other passengers. There were video clips of these people and pictures splashed across the television set. Even I was glued to my television. While the search was on, it was real-life drama unfolding in front of us.
The faces of the Titan tragedy
Also, it was a story of hope. And we, humans, love stories of hope more than any other kind. It is what we enjoy in television shows, in movies, in books. And so we were hooked. And the media is in the business of eyeballs. Whatever captures attention and keeps the most eyeballs locked to a tv station or other digital channel is what you get more of. That is business, for those whose business it is to keep us glued.
Now contrast the story of hope of miraculous rescue with the tragedy that hit the migrant boat. Why would anyone want to watch that around the clock? It’s sad, tragic, and depressing. It’s a story of untold human suffering and callousness fuelled by racism and xenophobia. I can also understand why the media would not want to cover that story. Because they are part of the story. They have contributed to the sensationalisation and overreaction to migrants. The migrant crisis has mostly been of their own making. In the UK, the media (and the governing Tory party) have been obsessed with migrants and small boats. And such rhetoric and vitriol lead to the disaster like the ship that sank with more than five hundred people on board. And there are many such disasters in the Mediterranean that receives little to no coverage in the media.
The other issue that some commentators and I presume the general public picked on was the number of resources that were thrown in to help rescue those five men. Canada, USA, France, the UK all chipped in. And like many rightly pointed out, all that effort was being bankrolled by us, the taxpayers. And rightly so, people started asking questions about how decisions and priorities are made about spending our public funds. Those five individuals were tourists who knowingly paid a fortune ($250 000) and signed waiver after waiver to take a dangerous trip to the bottom of the ocean. Why should we spend millions to rescue them?
The unseen, unknown faces of a tragegy at sea
My take, and this is just my opinion, is that we should always try to help and rescue people in distress. If tourists from this country were involved in a coach crash in Indonesia, would we question the decision to rescue them? After all, they were tourist who chose to go on a dangerous bus ride. I think countries have duty of care for their citizens and agencies like coast guards should be in the business of saving lives and NOT the political arguments about whose lives to save. That’s what makes the sinking of the migrant boat appalling and sickening. It appears the Greek coast guard disregarded that centuries old covenant of the high waters – that their duty is to save lives and vessels in distress, no questions asked.
So, yes, I think it was right to try to rescue the five people on the Titan. Because that is the right thing to do. But we should apply that universally. We should try to save and help all people. I think questioning why there was too much attention on the five rich people or who was footing the bill for their attempted search and rescue is unhelpful. A part of me thinks such questioning is a manifestation of our collective guilt for what we have failed to do when it comes to rescuing people who need our help the most.
We can and should do more to stop preventable deaths in the oceans. Hundreds of migrants still drown every day and their calls and cries for help go unanswered. That is the story the independent media should be pushing. Let’s galvanise people and our governments to show more compassion to those who need it the most, regardless of their wealth or station in life. Because that is the right thing to do.