The Indonesian earthquake in the news

The Indonesian earthquake in the news

This post should not be seen as a complete analysis, but rather as a scratch on the surface. I use this space to begin exploring certain ideas, concepts, and practices that structure the way we learn about current events. I am becoming more interested in how narratives are constructed, and how certain power dynamics find their way into the public sphere through the media. For me, the media oftentimes no longer is just a tool for meaning-making, but functions to reinforce societal hierarchies, deliberately or not. This post reflects my personal thoughts based on a very limited set of news stories and I am aware of the limitations that come with that. I am very open to productive criticism and widening my perspective!

Long story short, Indonesia got hit by an earthquake two nights ago, on August 5th, and I wanted to see how different news sources reported the event. I focused eleven national news sources from four different countries USA (CNN, CBS, New York Times), UK (BBC, The Guardian, The Independent), Germany (FAZ, Tagesschau, Ntv), and Indonesia (Kompas, Jakarta Post), and looked at coverage from Monday morning, August 6th (local time), including one article per news channel.

Whose voices are heard?

A few questions that I’ve been asking myself more frequently when reading (news) articles are who is given a voice, who gets to shape the narrative, why them, who is left out from the conversation, and which effects do these aspects have on our reading.

To answer these questions for the reporting of the most recent earthquake in Indonesia, I looked at direct and indirect quotes. As the table below shows local news channels exclusively relied on local sources, whereas foreign channels also included statements by tourists.

Local direct Local indirect Foreign direct Foreign indirect # of quotes Word count
BBC 3 2 3 0 8 670
The Guardian 4 1 4 1 10 730
The Independent 0 4 3 0 7 539
CBS 3 4 3 0 10 682
CNN 1 2 1 0 4 457
NYT 2 4 1 0 7 526
FAZ 2 0 1 0 3 591
Ntv 1 0 0 0 1 N/A
Tagesschau 2 0 0 0 2 411
Jakarta Post 3 3 0 0 6 223
Kompas 2 2 0 0 4 360

What effects does this have?

The effects, of course, depend largely on the audience. Take for example the two Indonesian news sources (in fact, the German ones too) only authoritative local sources were quoted. These were used to describe the current situation and the next steps factually. The effect this has on the reader, especially if they are local is that it reassures them the government is working to get the situation under control and that the country is united in these difficult times.

Personnel from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency [BNPB], the police, the Indonesian Military [TNI] and search and rescue teams will also work hand-in-hand to reach victims in the most affected area in North and East Lombok. Jakarta Post, 6 August 2018

Compare this to the UK and the US articles, where the focus shifts to also include almost exclusively direct quotes by foreigners. This increases the reports’ newsworthiness by making them more interesting and relatable to foreign audiences. In a way statements by non-locals bring the distant disaster closer. However, it also adds a good pinch of sensationalism and emotion to the story. This, in my view, is strengthened by referring to celebrities and including snapshots of their tweets instead of those of local authorities (#NotAllNewsSources). Both US and UK articles also referred to Australian and Singaporean government officials, while the German articles did mention neither government officials nor celebrities.

People like us?

I came across an interesting book chapter by Stijn Joye titled “The local relevance of global suffering. Articulations of identities and cosmopolitanism in television news discourses on distant suffering”. And one thing he mentioned stuck with me:

Although disasters are very negative by nature, a positive representation of American and Australian citizens (‘people like us’) was achieved in emphasizing their agency, apparent control over the situation and effective crisis management skills. Indonesian and, to a lesser extent, Pakistani people (‘ethnic others’) were by contrast negatively depicted as passively undergoing the misfortune and overpowered by forces of nature.

After reading this, I went back to the articles and looked at how the media portrayed the locals’ and tourists’ responses to the earthquake.

Local Tourist
CBS “’I was watching TV when I felt a big shake,’” said Harian, a Lombok woman who uses one name. ‘The lamp was shaking, and people were shouting ‘Get out.’ I ran out into the dark because the power cut off.’” “Australia’s home affairs minister tweeted that he and his delegation were safely evacuated in darkness from a Lombok hotel where they have been staying during a regional security conference.”
“Frightened people poured out of their homes to move to higher ground” “Chrissy Teigen, along with her husband John Legend and their two children, felt the quake during their vacation in Bali. Teigen live-tweeted what she and her family experienced Sunday.” (emphasis added)
NYT “Television footage showed panicked residents and tourists fleeing to safety on both islands, especially after a warning that the quake and major aftershocks could cause a tsunami.” “Television footage showed panicked residents and tourists fleeing to safety on both islands, especially after a warning that the quake and major aftershocks could cause a tsunami.”
“Thousands fled from their homes to gather in emergency shelters in open spaces, the disaster agency said.” “It was quite impossible to stand up. Heard screams,” he wrote. “Came out, and made my way down a staircase, while building was still shaking. Power went out for a while. Lots of cracks, fallen doors.”
BBC “Video footage from Bali, to the west of Lombok, showed people running from their homes screaming.” “About 1,000 foreign tourists are being evacuated from the nearby Gili islands and at least one person died on Bali.”
“Everyone immediately ran out of their homes, everyone is panicking,” one resident named as Iman said” “Model and presenter Chrissy Teigen, who is on holiday in Bali, described 15 seconds of a tremor, followed by “so many aftershocks”.
“’They were initially just little shocks but then they started to get bigger and bigger and people started to shout ‘earthquake’, then all the staff panicked and rushed out of the building,’ the unnamed man said.”
The Guardian “The quake triggered widespread panic across Lombok, with residents fleeing their homes and heading to higher ground, after the tremor initially triggered a tsunami warning” “Holidaymakers on the Gilis reportedly flocked to higher ground and huddled together as the aftershocks continued. Saffron Amis, a British student visiting the islands, told Reuters dozens of tourists were evacuated to a hill after the quake.”
“I was wounded after my head was hit with rubble. My stomach hurts carrying my child while I was trying to hold a wall that was collapsing.” “US model Chrissy Teigen was on holiday in Bali with her family when the quake struck and tweeted throughout the tremors”
“Everyone immediately ran out of their homes, everyone is panicking”
The Independent “The quake was felt for several seconds in Bali, where people ran out of houses, hotels and restaurants.” “The quake was felt for several seconds in Bali, where people ran out of houses, hotels and restaurants.”
“Iwan Asmara, from the local disaster mitigation agency, said people poured out of their houses in panic and moved to higher ground, particularly in Mataram and north Lombok.” “Not everyday you feel a level 7 earthquake hit. Currently in Bali and was sat in restaurant and suddenly the whole place started shaking and everyone fled to the streets, very scary experience.”
“The tsunami warning just ended here in Bali. Our children, Astrid, 5, Hendrik, 21 [months], bewildered and frightened by violent shaking, are back asleep from 7.0 earthquake in Lombok, 73 miles away. The sea lies 150 metres away from our house. Our bags are packed, and will remain so.”


To finish this up, I want to emphasize again that this post is highly limited. However, I think I got some interesting starting points to look into this topic a bit deeper. I also welcome recommendations for further reading, different opinions, and/or other aspects to consider!

EDIT: After discussing this post with one of my Indonesian friends, I became very much aware of my own biases, and the irony of only choosing “white” foreign media. I also realized I should’ve voiced the intention of this post more clearly. It started as a purely exploratory thing and things evolved as I went. However, my knowledge about crisis reporting and the portrayal of distant suffering at this moment is very small that I do not feel informed enough to draw conclusions (which would also be problematic based on sample size). I will leave this post as it is however, and see it as a first step to understanding these complex issues better and as an opportunity to build upon in the future.

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