In late June, hundreds of migrants died in a shipwreck near Greece—a tragedy that received little public attention. Meanwhile, in another corner of the globe, a submersible crossed the ocean in search of the infamous Titanic shipwreck. With the help of OceanGate, a diving company, five high-profile individuals boarded this vessel. Not long after, news broke that the submersible had gone missing, catching global attention. Over the next few days, thousands of social media posts and news articles detailed the story, and a million-dollar search and rescue operation was launched to save the passengers. 

One journalist noticed the disparity in news coverage between the Titanic submersible and Greece shipwreck and asked why one event received more attention from the public than the other. This is caused by a struggle for “newsworthiness” in mass media, influenced by the victim’s race or “disaster fatigue.”

Remembering the Victims

The fishing boat that capsized off the southern Greek coast set sail from Libya toward Italy, carrying people from Syria, Egypt, and Pakistan. Numerous accounts suggest that approximately 400 to 750 people were on board—many of whom were women and children. Overcrowded on a small fishing boat, the likelihood of capsizing increased given the large number of people on board and the water, which ran five kilometres deep. Indeed, out of the 750 adults and children on board, only 104 survived.

Fadi, a family member of someone aboard the capsized boat, arrived at the port of Kalamata at dawn. He eventually spotted his brother Mohammad, who immediately “burst into tears.”

In an interview with Democracy Now, Abdelfarid Ahmad, the father of 18-year-old Syrian migrant Mohammad Ahmad, said in a translated statement that he does not know whether his son is dead or alive: 

“On Friday night, we lost contact with my son. And until now, we don’t know anything about his whereabouts. The smugglers say they arrived on the other side [but] there’s been no communication. We don’t know anything about him. Drowned, alive, we don’t know.”

In an interview with The Guardian, Abdul Karim, a shopkeeper from a village in Kashmir, lost his cousin and uncle on the boat. Karim notes:

“It’s sad that a submarine carrying five rich people was given much more consideration, coverage and importance than the migrants on the Greek boat,’” […] “Millions of dollars must have been spent to rescue the rich, but for the poor, there’s no such opportunity. Even the Pakistani government was not paying any heed to the issue.”

The Construction of Newsworthiness

According to the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, journalists often collect information from victims who look more innocent when reporting on the tragedy. The criteria of who makes a “newsworthy” victim depend highly on race, class, and socioeconomic status. 

For instance, newsworthy victims who receive a lot of media coverage include white middle to upper-class children, women, and elderly people. In contrast, non-newsworthy victims can be, but are not limited to, sex workers, men, marginalized groups, and visible minorities. 

Though every media outlet is different, the journalism industry has typically relied on a few predictable measures to evaluate the “newsworthiness of a story.” According to the seminal work of sociologist Johan Gatlung and Mari Holmboe Ruge, newsworthy stories are simple to report and understand, adverse or unexpected, and often cover elite people (i.e., politicians, entertainers, or athletes) or wealthy countries. 

These principles play out in the disparity in coverage and public sympathy between the Kalamata shipwreck and the OceanGate submersible. On the submersible were a group of well-established and respected individuals: Stockton Rush (61), CEO of Ocean Gate and a graduate of Princeton; Hamish Harding (58), a businessman and chairman of Action Aviation; Paul-Henri Nargeolet (77), world-renowned Titanic expert; Shahzada Dawood (48), vice-chairman of a Pakistani investment company and Suleman Dawood (19), his son, a student at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University. 

Furthermore, the Titan submersible passengers each paid $250,000 for the voyage. OceanGate has conducted more than 200 deep-ocean dives, including 14 trips to the Titanic. However, the passengers signed a waiver that said the Titan only had a 14% success rate in reaching the depth of the Titanic wreckage. Meanwhile, the people on the Kalamata shipwreck were fleeing violent conflict, state persecution, and impoverished economic conditions. 

Disaster Fatigue

Sadly, this disaster was only one of many incidents where migrants died sailing to Europe. That same June, 30 people were reported to have drowned on a dinghy boat that sank on its way from Morocco to Spain’s Canary Islands. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 2,700 migrants died on routes from the Middle East or North Africa and Europe last year. Since 2014, the United Nations (UN) has recorded more than 20,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea alone, making it one of the most dangerous asylum routes to Europe globally.

This disparity in news coverage reveals the dark underbelly of the mainstream news industry. Migrant deaths are flattened into the large volume of death, trauma, violence, and natural disasters that journalists regularly report on.

Another significant inequity was the amount of resources allocated toward each incident. When the Titanic submersible went missing, the Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian military were all mobilized for a search-and-rescue mission. In Greece, many public authorities knew the exact coordinates of the overcrowded fishing boat, yet there was no attempt to send a rescue mission despite the overcrowding on board and the ship’s condition.  

Annes Majeed, a law student from Pakistan, spoke to The Guardian about the inequitable resource allocation for these two tragedies. The scale of rescue efforts and the difference in global media response to these two events is evident in their words:

“We were shocked to know that millions would be spent on this rescue mission…[t]hey used all resources, and so much news came out from this search. But they did not bother to search for the hundreds of Pakistanis and other people who were on the Greek boat. This is a double standard…they could have saved many of the people if they wanted, or at least they could have recovered the bodies.”

Reshaping the Narrative

Arsalan Khan, assistant professor of anthropology at Union College in New York, states that these differences in news coverage create the impression that one group is more deserving of human empathy and compassion. 

This idea should not be the case. But is there a way to redefine the criteria for newsworthiness? One scholar argues that socially responsible journalists report stories that minimize harm to the victims involved (i.e., respecting privacy concerns) and include diverse perspectives (especially individuals or communities who do not often have a platform). The University of Oxford provides a few recommendations for restoring trust in communities that have been underrepresented in the media: focus on bias checking, telling a complete story, diversifying newsrooms and appreciating the needs of different news consumers. 

Within the international community, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that member states have a duty under maritime law to rescue people in distress at sea. For instance, Poland or Hungary previously failed to take in refugees and were fined €20,000 ($25,000 Cdn) per each migrant they did not rescue. These fines are a first step, but more measures are needed to uphold migrant safety and routes for transportation. Indeed, many human rights and refugee groups call for the international community to establish safe asylum routes to Europe. 

Migrants will continue taking such risks so long as the unstable economic conditions or conflict in their homelands continue. As for decision-makers, governments must respond accordingly, stop being bystanders and allow these people to drown in the open sea. Within mainstream media, journalists must actively challenge the narrative that migrant deaths are not “newsworthy” by continuing to report these stories so the public may sympathize and recognize the humanity in each of these victims. 

Edited by Sun Woo Baik

Jacob Sablan

Jacob (he/him) is a second-year at the University of British Columbia studying Political Science and Law & Society. He was born in Edmonton, Alberta, but his family is from Bamban, Tarlac in the Philippines....