Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Tuesday Edition: Central American Flood: Where Is the Coverage?

By Al Tompkins

The American press let out another collective yawn Monday about the tragedy that has claimed hundreds of lives and devastated entire areas of Central America. The Los Angeles Times, one of a handful of U.S. papers that is providing original reporting from Guatemala City, says out in the countryside, more than 500 people are dead, more than 300 are missing and roughly 90,000 people are living in shelters -- including more than 3,000 people who are stuck in makeshift camps.

And, yet, this story is missing on front pages and national newscasts.

The flooding, mudslides and landslides began five days ago. Refugees from Guatemala are trying to escape to Mexico -- thirsty, hungry and without government aid. There are stories of people who are still stuck on mountaintops. Andrew Tyndall, who writes the Tyndall Report, a monitor of weeknight evening network newscasts, tells me that even while the tragedy was unfolding, "On the nightly newscasts last week, CBS and ABC both ran voiceover videotape mentions of Hurricane Stan. NBC did not mention it."

Univision provides the most detailed coverage I could find online. Along with updated information and death tolls, the Spanish-language TV network also includes online video and photo galleries. Univision puts the death tolls in Mexico and Guatemala at 752, with more than 1,400 missing.

Knight Ridder Newspapers is covering the story from Mexico City. The Washington Post made it to the waterlogged village of Escuintla, southwest of Guatemala City.

The New York Times, which also has a reporter on the ground, said:

As rescue workers and relatives of the dead arrived Saturday, villagers handed out native herbs and told the visitors to press the leaves into their noses to fend off the smell of decomposing bodies.

Despite an increasingly prominent concern in the U.S. media about how to best serve a growing Hispanic population in America, what is being reported in American papers is mostly wire-service coverage.

I looked at more than 300 newspaper front pages yesterday. The most prominent coverage I found in the country came from The Beaver County Times in Beaver, Pa. The paper ran a front-page headline and brief and a B-1 jump.

The only other papers I found that featured front-page coverage of the Central American landslides and floods were the Los Angeles Times and The (Memphis, Tenn.) Commercial Appeal. Al Día (Dallas) included a small photo and inside coverage.

The San Jose Mercury News, The Miami Herald, Hoy, The Lancaster, Pa. Intellegencer Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Rockford (Ill.) Register Star and Rumbo (del Valle, de Houston, de San Antonio and de Austin, Texas) included a front-page brief -- and some had inside coverage. CNN has a correspondent in the area. The network's Latin America correspondent, Harris Whitbeck, filed from the city of Panabaj, which may be declared a cemetery.

El Heraldo and La Prensa (Honduras) estimate 3,000 people may have died in Guatemala

Univision reports that Mexico accepted 15 tons of food and medicines from Cuba. Channel 3 in Guatemala City reports that France is sending 3.4 tons of medical supplies on a military cargo plane and the Germans say money is on the way.

What is the U.S. sending? The United States Embassy in Guatemala says:

To date, USAID has delivered more than $200,000 ... in relief supplies to Guatemala, including funding for the helicopter transport of emergency relief supplies and for the purchase of food, water and other supplies. Fuel has been purchased for the Guatemalan air bridge to deliver emergency supplies. USAID has flown in 5,000 blankets, plastic tarpaulins to provide temporary shelter for 1,000 families and 5,000 personal-hygiene kits containing blankets, soap and other toiletries.

In addition, U.S. Southern Command has delivered eight helicopters -- six UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and two CH-47 Chinook helicopters -- to assist Guatemala in search and rescue operations in priority areas.

The U.S. Southern Command is moving 58 people up from Honduras to help out.

Veronica Villafañe, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, told me she considered the lack of coverage by U.S. media to be "appalling." She dropped a note to Al's Morning Meeting readers:

The loss of life due to catastrophic events is a tragedy no matter where it takes place. It usually prompts news coverage and immediate help, as was the case after the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and just this past weekend, an earthquake leveled parts of Pakistan. But what seems appalling is that the destruction of hurricane Stan in Central America has been virtually ignored by the U.S. media.

Go to the NAHJ Web site for more from Veronica where she writes:

NAHJ performed a search of 22 major daily newspapers from Oct. 7-10 using the Lexis-Nexis database and found that a total of 10 stories ran about the tragedy and only one newspaper, The Washington Post, placed a story about the disaster on its front page. In addition, the network evening news only devoted a total of four stories to the Guatemalan mudslides from Oct. 7-9, although three were only mere mentions of less than 50 words.

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