We Get What We Want: Nepal Coverage in Context

Most of us left because the economics of empathy —at least as expressed in the world of journalism— made it impossible to remain any longer.

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I suppose all things must end. #offassignment #exit

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Yesterday, Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, tore into foreign news coverage of April’s earthquake in Nepal.

The international media arrives in herds and hunts in packs. Everything has to conform to a preordained script: you parachute in and immediately find good visuals of ‘utter devastation’; recruit an English-speaking local who doesn’t need subtitling; trail the rescue teams with sniffer dogs you flew in with as they pull someone out alive, after 12 hours (the rescuers need their logos on TV as much as you need them in the picture).

His words are sharp, burnished —it seems— by his frustration at the sight of equipment-laden voyeurs who shadow disasters. However, Dixit loses his ferocity within paragraphs, his vigor replaced by a wariness that the story of Nepal —what the 7.8 earthquake wrought, other than a surplus of media— will be forgotten as the media cycle ticks stubbornly on.

Dixit is right, of course. We privilege those moments of crisis. These are the shortened seconds and sustained shock where journalistic imperative is often felt strongest. And yes, we left as quickly as we arrived.

But no one I met there, tasked with writing, filming, or photographing a disaster Dixit knows is “too big to comprehend” thought that Nepal (as a story) could be exhausted in a week. Most of us packed our bags because the economics of empathy —at least as expressed in the world of journalism— made it impossible to remain any longer.

There is nothing cheap about covering crisis: hotel rates spike, the demand curve for translators and fixers stretches skyward, access to electricity and Internet are expensive at best. These effects aren’t surprising. But they exist.

This means that every minute on the ground, those necessary moments exploring what Dixit calls “stereotypical coverage,” limits our ability to “catch a deeper understanding of what’s really happening.” You cover your bases first, then you start brushing the dust away. If you still have the finances to do it. But Dixit knows this. “There is a formula for news and it’s hard to file a story that doesn’t fit it” he writes.

And so his charges —well-intentioned and worth considering, seriously — struggle with same question that haunts the reporter: What are we (journalists) to do when the audience signals it’s ready to move on?

To care everywhere and always and to cover that everything in real time, is —in part— to report on nothing. Priorities must be set. Today, those priorities are increasingly shaped by scarcity and our growing knowledge of audience interests. As a result, we live at a time where “comprehensive coverage” can appear more aspirational than practical.

But even sustained attention, if you can arrange it, comes at a cost. If Nepal played home to a bumper crop of reporters for months on end, one might imagine Dixit writing stories of local fatigue: calls to leave the Nepalis alone as they rebuild.

Dixit is stuck with media coverage as necessary evil: the tedious, too-predictable peering eyes and pointed pens, effect (and affect) relief efforts. They write the “headlines [that] keep the crisis alive.”

None of this excuses any damage inflicted by journalism done wrong: the irresponsible reporting of fear-inducing rumors (i.e. “predicted” aftershocks, etc…) did much to erase any sense of security and stability just days after disaster. But Dixit struggles to differentiate the system of journalism from the journalists themselves.

I can’t speak for all the reporters who covered those first days in April, as the dusty afternoons stretched into unsettled evenings, as media teams sat bleary-eyed in the small hours of the morning trying to arrange logistics to cover the stories outside the bubble of Kathmandu, but I would bet many would have stayed longer and traded horror stories for those of revival and triumph.

The latter are more satisfying than stunning, more humble than haunting, and they are probably the ones Dixit wants to read. Most of us just didn’t get the time to write them.

To Make It Matter

I wanted to be more heart rate monitor, less tape recorder.


We linger on the flesh.

The “we” in that sentence is the journalist, of course. But it’s also you — or the version of “you” that “we” might be writing for.

On my last day in Kathmandu, six days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook 7,500* people to death in this small, landlocked country, I decided to return to the waters of the Bhagwati. This river slows to a trickle as it passes one of the country’s treasures, the Pashupatinath Temple.

I had been here before — my first day in Nepal — and had stood watching grieving family members cremate loved ones. Flecks of ash, particles of the once-living, floated across the warm winds, catching in the fine hairs of my arm. Acrid smoke stung the back of my dry throat.

Looking back, my notebook seems chaotic. The words are mere triggers for observations, fragments of sights each straining to fit a story I might tell.

Goats walk the riverside
Spare bricks crowd the footbridge
Bodies wait in garbage bags
They [the men tasked with cremating] drop the fire into the mouth first.

Arriving in the hangover of a natural disaster encourages this kind of struggling. There is a searching for sense amid signals too broad and significant. The stories one longs to find, to record and mark as their own, seem instead to linger, trapped somewhere just beyond touch.

So I was there, my final afternoon, at the river. My sleepless body wired to failure on caffeine, the sun’s scratching heat on my bare neck. I just wanted to sit. I wanted to feel still in a place made nervous by sudden movement. I wanted to understand, through mere presence, what grievous loss might feel like.

I wanted to be more heart rate monitor, less tape recorder.

Some say death is supposed to tell us something about this life. That, perhaps, these stories of the living are only complete when coupled with stories of the lost. To avoid this would be like trying to trace a circle with only half the ink you need.

But I worry. I worry that true artifice lives in a misheld belief: that we might understand tragedy through broad and ill-timed questions asked of the agrieved.

We forget that questions are always easier. They are the hard-shelled armor we shelter behind. Questions are what make our world stop shaking. Not theirs.

I tried to remember this.

I did.

But my eyes drifted downstream to the scurried activity, the cooing of an amassing crowd, and the shimmer of light as it reflected off strange, new, naked bodies.

So I went.

I lingered.

I bled news from this flesh.

*The Times of India has reported casualties in excess of 8,000 (as of Friday, May 8, 2015)