Sunday, March 5, 2023

Silences and biases in media and academic reporting of Landslide Disasters

I recently came across a study done primarily on major US media networks titled 'How many deaths does it take for a disaster to receive news coverage' (Source: Eisensee and Stromberg (2007)). The two authors found out that for every person killed by a volcano 882 people have to die of landslides to receive the same coverage in US televised news. This creates dangerous biases and affects the attention given to landslides as a disaster. Disasters like landslides are less 'spectacular', with fewer dramatic stories and therefore not documented. Though the data is for the US media networks there are many examples of how landslides have been ignored in our region as well. To refer to a recent instance, we documented how the landslide in Pathing was overlooked for over 3 months which caused severe distress to the lives and livelihood of the people there. You can view the videos here.

Location is also a bias which is talked about in this article, where developed nations like Europe and America get way more coverage than the rest. 

I performed a simple search on Google, taking The Times Of India as a case study, with the keywords 'Landslides in The Pune Times of India' vs Uttarakhand, Darjeeling and Mizoram. The results clearly show the discrimination in media reports, where importance has been given to developed regions yet again.

In the image above I have placed these results on a landslide hazard zonation map of India given by BMTPC, Government of India to show how severe to high risk zones in the North East are reported vs the high, moderate to low developed areas, which are reported almost triple times more.

The results in descending order are:
Uttarakhand: 1573 news articles
Pune: 755 news articles
Darjeeling: 198 news articles
Mizoram: 169 news articles

Not only is it hidden in media but also in the academic front. Given below are statistics of the biased distribution of landslide studies done across the Himalayan region (Abhirup 2020), where the Western Himalayas has been given a larger chunk of the academic pie than the North East Himalayas. The author attributes this bias to the a higher population density and a higher level of landslide risk there. 

We see that there are global, national and regional biases when it comes to disasters in general. Landslides are unique because we have biases locally as well. This bias comes with what is seen easily, landslides on the roads. Most of the studies done here are on landslides on NH10 or NH55. It is easily accessible, causes a lot of problems for a larger mass and hampers development. What is ignored then are the smaller landslides. A famous quote by our president is that 'Landslides nibble'. They nibble their way into farmlands, (we have a detailed report on the Nimbong landslide problem where acres of farmland has just disappeared due to landslides) homes, creating sinking or unstable zones where people have no other option but to relocate.

According to GSI, 12.6% of India's landmass is prone to landslide hazard. Landslides are unique in nature as they are the only disasters that take away a person's land. Our region is extremely vulnerable to these biases because we are not only the victims of disaster discrimination but also the victims of spatial discrimination. These biases must be accounted for in the Landslide Risk Zonation Maps to get an accurate view.

We face a silent disaster therefore are unheard; its impact slow though debilitating therefore ignored; and distant therefore unseen. 

Shreya Gurung,
Kalimpong district
Darjeeling- Sikkim Himalayas

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