Tim Weston: The media's response to China's coal mine disaster--and ours

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Weston is an Associate Professor in the
Department of History, University of Colorado,
Boulder, CO.]

Like many Americans, I watched with hope, apprehension, and finally with real sadness as the saga of the six miners trapped underground at Utah's Crandall Canyon mine played out earlier this month. Anybody in the United States who keeps even half an eye on the news is familiar with the broad outlines of the Utah mine story. But how many of these same Americans who experienced genuine pathos over its outcome know that another mine tragedy was playing out simultaneously on the other side of the world?

Only those who happened to hear the excellent report on National Public Radio or read the news very closely know that on Friday, Aug. 17, just as the search for the Utah miners was reaching its sad denouement, a river in eastern China's Shandong province burst its dike, trapping 172 miners deep inside the Zhangzhuang coal mine. Nine miners at a nearby smaller mine (owned by the same Huayuan Mining Company) were unaccounted for as well.

Despite the appallingly high presumed death toll in this Chinese mine disaster, the Shandong tragedy unfortunately did not surprise me. As a China specialist who has paid close attention to safety problems in the Chinese coalmining industry I have learned to expect news of this kind and grown used to a steady drip, between reports of massive tragedies, of stories about smaller mine disasters involving ten or even several dozen deaths. Last year alone thousands of Chinese coal miners died in workplace accidents, an average of 13 die each day according to official estimates.

Inured though I've become to the tragic news emanating from China's coal mines, I was struck by something else altogether last week. The drama in Utah received wall-to-wall, saturation coverage in the American media, but the far more horrendous (in terms of numbers killed) Chinese coal mine disaster received merely sidebar-style coverage from most news outlets.

Under the circumstances, it would be perverse to claim that the Chinese mine disaster was somehow not newsworthy. After all, American news outlets had transformed the Utah tragedy into a two-week media circus. Journalists competed with one another to find the most arresting images and, sometimes it seemed, most invasive ways of violating the privacy of the grieving families and friends of the Utah miners. This was the perfect human drama for the dog days of early August and the 24/7 media machine had a field day with it.

Given how transfixed Americans were by a tale of six trapped miners, isn't it natural to think that the simultaneous entombment of more than thirty times as many Chinese miners also deserved some copy?

It's true that information about the Chinese tragedy has been limited and that American journalists couldn't set up camp outside the Chinese mine, but surely that alone cannot account for the near silence.

Nor is it a good enough explanation to say that news of lax Chinese safety regulations is irrelevant to "us." After all, the American media recently has been chock full of stories, some of them highly alarmist, about unsafe Chinese goods for sale in the United States. Hardly a day goes by without word of another unsafe Chinese-made product's recall. But here was a case where the victims of a safety standard violation (the Shandong mine disasters appear to be related to the deliberate flouting of codified safety procedures) were Chinese not Americans.

How do we think about that at a time when China-bashing by American political forces is rising? Furthermore, how do we think about the fact that the Chinese government is trying to improve safety standards in the country's mines, and elsewhere, but is up against corruption and ruthless, mercenary forces nearly impossible to control? Is activist government regulation good or bad? To what extent should governments interfere with markets to ensure that they work with maximum efficiency and assure the greatest amount of social justice?

In an era of massive trade between countries, are these national or international matters? What obligations do all countries have to play by international rules?

There are no simple answers to these issues that we share with China (and other countries), just as there is no way of determining exactly how much sympathy is "appropriate" when we confront human tragedies, be they American or Chinese. For better or worse, like people everywhere, we Americans tend to be more interested in news involving ourselves than we are in news about others. Yet to me there was something deeply disturbing about the imbalance in coverage given to these two terrifying and tragic mine disaster stories. If the fate of six Americans is deemed worthy of round-the-clock news coverage for days on end, why has the fate of exponentially more non-Americans in similar circumstances gotten far less than half as much attention?

In the parlance of the day, I regard the failure of the American media to pay serious attention to the recent Chinese mine disaster as a "missed opportunity." Rather than devoting so much attention to sensationalistic coverage of the Utah story, it would be refreshing to see the American media demonstrate a more global outlook that takes human suffering seriously wherever it occurs. Rather than focusing so much on the prurient human interest aspect of such suffering, it would be desirable if its deeper, complex causes were explored and reported on.

In the case of China, whose fate is increasingly intertwined with that of the United States, isn't there a particular need to pay attention when "they" experience something very similar to what "we" experience?


The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.

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