- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

Floods in Europe

Like most other American news media, we devoted a great deal of space last week to the dramatic floods that swept across northern Europe and killed almost 100 people by week's end.

Yet none of us gave anything like the same amount of attention to massive floods in parts of South and Southeast Asia that killed 10 times as many people.

Does this mean we consider European lives more precious than Asian lives?

No, absolutely not. But there is a sort of macabre calculus whereby violent death seems more interesting to readers the closer it occurs to home and the more closely the readers are able to identify with the victims.

By this measure, we pay far more attention to a shooting in a school in the United States than to a similar incident in Germany and would pay far more attention again if it happened in a local jurisdiction.

European crises in general get a lot of attention in American newspapers because so many of our readers are of European descent and still feel some connection to one European country or another. In cities with large Asian populations Toronto and San Francisco come to mind the Asian floods undoubtedly will have been covered more closely.

The European floods also seemed more gripping because so many of our readers have visited the cities where they were happening and toured the historic buildings that were at risk of being destroyed. People always seem more interested in reading about places and things when they have some first-hand knowledge of them.

Finally, there was an element of "newness" about the European floods that was missing from those in Asia, and newspapers are about nothing if not what is new.

The floods in Germany and the Czech Republic sent waters to levels not seen since the 19th century, if ever, and threatened to destroy historic landmarks in Prague that had survived wars dating back to medieval times.

The Asian floods, while tragic, were not that unusual for a region that is all too accustomed to suffering huge death tolls from typhoons, monsoon-related floods and other weather phenomena.

Getting on the story

The major wire agencies were slow to make a big deal about the European floods, leading to a mixed response from American papers. Dozens of people already had been killed in flash floods on Russia's Black Sea coast before one of our reporters pointed out the story to me on Monday afternoon.

We added a story and picture for the world section, and even they seemed barely adequate by the evening, when the agencies reported 50,000 people were being evacuated from Prague.

Tuesday morning, we called a free-lancer in Prague to get our own story as the Vltava River threatened to overrun the historic district and destroy centuries-old buildings and frescoes. Bruce I. Konviser's story appeared with a four-column picture on the front page Wednesday.

By Wednesday morning, the situation remained grave, but it looked like Prague would survive the worst of it, and we were looking for a way to avoid publishing a story that would look too much like an item from the previous day.

Reuters news agency for two days had been moving secondary "sidebars" with reaction from politicians and environmentalists that gave us an idea: Several of these people had been trying to link the floods to global warning and U.S. refusal to sign the Kyoto treaty all this just weeks before a major environmental conference in South Africa.

We asked free-lancer Paul Martin in London to write an essentially political story about the comments, treating them with appropriate skepticism.

Using that as a vehicle, we inserted several paragraphs from the wire agencies duly credited with the latest news on water levels, evacuations and the like, and came up with another front-page story that was substantially different from what readers already had seen on their evening newscasts.

By Thursday, we concluded that interest in the floods had crested along with the waters in Prague and began tapering off the coverage. We ran a detailed wire story on an inside page of the paper Friday and by Saturday, it was reduced to a three-paragraph "brief."

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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