Hurricane Harvey spent the last week and change devastating the lives of thousands in Southeast Texas, covering about 11,500 square miles of land in 30 inches of rain and likely leaving tens of thousands of Texans displaced. As of Sept. 4, the death toll numbered at least 60.
Simultaneously, countries in South Asia were beaten down by unusually severe monsoon rains that have subjected Bangladesh, Nepal and parts of India to extreme flooding.
Recent reports estimate that 1,200 people are dead due to flooding, and 41 million have been affected. According to UNICEF estimates, 16 million children have been left in “urgent need of life-saving support.”
Despite the significantly deadlier nature of the South Asian floods, Hurricane Harvey has received far more coverage in U.S. media.
According to a report by IRIN, a Geneva-based nonprofit dedicated to reporting on humanitarian crises, U.S. media published approximately 160 times as much material on the Texas floods as they have on flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal combined.
Within the report, an analysis of words published by U.S. media in late August found the word “Houston” used 100 times more than “India” or “Nepal,” and 150 times more than “Bangladesh.”
The gap was much smaller when IRIN analyzed Indian media — they only published three times as much on South Asian flooding compared to Hurricane Harvey coverage.
It is important to note that a disparity of this kind is to be expected — media outlets cover stories that will be read by the readers in their own country, so stories related to that country will almost always gain preference. That said, it is quite possible that a disparity in coverage could lead to a more depressing disparity in funding for the disasters.
In the aftermath of Harvey, donations poured in from across the country. Celebrity donations and donation drives have dominated Twitter feeds as of late.
Stand-up comedian Kevin Hart, for example, challenged several of his celebrity friends to donate $25,000 to relief efforts (as well as doing so himself), and organized a donation drive for his fans that has raised $1.4 million as of this writing. J.J. Watt, a player for the NFL’s Houston Texans, also started a donation drive that has raised $21.5 million as of this writing.
No American celebrities, however, have flaunted donations or organized donation drives for Bangladesh or Nepal.
A disparity in coverage leads to a disparity in funding, which is further confirmed by comparing funds raised by Global Giving (a nonprofit global crowdfunding community that raises money to donate to small, local nonprofits) for Texas and for South Asia. The Global Giving Texas fund has currently raised about $2.5 million, while the South Asia fund has raised only about $26,000.
Furthermore, those numbers pale in comparison when we take into account the Global Giving funds for the 2010 and 2015 earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, which both enjoyed a significant share of news coverage. Unsurprisingly, they earned much more than the recent South Asia floods — about $930,000 and about $5 million, respectively.
Coverage matters. In wealthy countries like the U.S., newsrooms have a direct impact on the natural disasters they choose to cover (or not to cover). Donations follow that coverage, and when a disaster like Hurricane Harvey dominates news coverage to the exclusion of other, deadlier disasters, it results in grave disparities in funding.