A Tsunami of Silence

| September 14, 2009
International Voices forum

Hello everybody and welcome to your audition for the seven o’clock news.

Here’s our first applicant; Omar from Sudan.

So Omar, what’s your story?

Hunger you say?

No, I’m sorry, hunger is getting so very old, but please come back and try again if anything of greater news value should happen to you.

So thank you for coming Omar, and of course good luck with your starving, HIV-positive, homeless, refugee family.


Last week, Madeleine McCann, the British girl who disappeared from Portugal in May 2007, made it to the front pages again. In the days, weeks and months after her disappearance pictures of Madeline were continuously splashed on front pages and over the news. She is still front-page material whenever a new clue is found.
Everyday millions of children are starving and dying of easily preventable and curable diseases. In Africa five million children die every year before their fifth birthday. During all that time Madeleine was a top news story, I did not see one single second of prime time air, or a lone front page concerning these millions of children.
Why? Because it is impossible for millions of starving children in Africa to compete with one blonde girl.
If we look at the children who are starving every day in Africa, they have several problems which detract from their news value: they don’t look like us, they’re too far away, and they’re dying in a fashion that is too boring to make the news.
International Voices forumThe slow death of these children is no sensation; the pace doesn’t fit into the second-tyranny of the media. Madeleine’s case on the other hand had much better odds of making it to the front pages. Her blond hair and blue eyes helped to make her story seem close and relevant to us. She wasn’t just another African lost-cause.
Fear of loosing a child is recognisable to most people, and that fear was intensified because Madeleine’s family appeared to be a normal family that could be living next door to most of us. In this way Madeleine’s disappearance satisfied the news criteria. In addition, the parents and the people around them knew how to work with the media to get the attention and visibility they needed; and visibility is power.
Daily news selections have an enormous impact on our world view and on the public agenda.
As seen by the McCann case, the mass media can act as catalyst for actions and spread knowledge of events far from the local context where they took place. Media choices can politicise events, and also everyday life; making distant events feel real and close to us simply by making them visible.
Just as the media has a powerful impact upon the individuals and issues to which it turns its attention, there are also great consequences for the people and the problems that do not get selected. Of course you have to make choices every day in the news rooms, but it is many of the same people and the same problems, which consequently are overlooked because of the racist narrow-mindedness of our news values.
If Madeleine McCann had been an African Muslim, and her mother for had worn a burqa, would her disappearance have reveived the same media attention? The answer to this question is no, and this imbalance creates a lot of blind spots in our world view.
This imbalance is not only a question of racism in the way news is selected. A part of the problem is rooted in the structures organising the news of today and in the competitive heavily expanded media market. Humanitarian crises are not sensational and entertaining enough and therefore not economically favourable. Especially not if the crises are in smaller countries without real influence on the global world order.
If these countries are to ever have a chance of making it to the seven o’clock news it’s in the rare case of a humanitarian crisis such as a tsunami; and even then they better hope some westerners get caught up in the waves as well, a few are usually enough, to make the tsunami less silent.


Marie Nydam Jensen is a Danish journalist. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Media Science from Aarhus University and is currently taking a semester at the University of Sydney as part of a Master’s Degree in Media Science and Politics.



  1. Christian

    September 29, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    Has disaster finally found its paparazzi

    Hi Marie

    Thank you for quite a suggestive article.

    Nearly 285.000 local people died in, and shortly after the tsunami. 2464 foreigners died.

    Almost every media that day, in Denmark, was focused on the 38 Danes missing in the region.

    A large Danish paper published a picture of some, presumably Danish, tourists lying dead on the beach. The people demanded an apology and quite exceptionally, they got one.

    The grotesque thing is that we saw thousands and thousands of dead Indonesians piled up on the beaches.

    In Iraq and Afghanistan its the same picture. We see hundreds of dead civilians but you have to look long and hard to find a picture of a dead American soldier.

    Hope to hear more from you and all the best of luck to you.