The cyclone that swept through Orissa, a state in eastern India, at the end of October has claimed nearly 10,000 lives. The Post generally has taken note of that occurrence in a few news briefs. It did carry a full wire service story from the Associated Press on Nov. 2, a story that got wrong the name of the capital of Orissa. The AP story, which quoted one observer as saying that the cyclone had caused "the worst [flooding] in India's history," said that the capital was Baleshwar; it's really Bhubaneshwar. Not until Nov. 12 did The Post carry a story by one of its foreign correspondents, Pamela Constable, who is based in New Delhi.
"An estimated 15 million people have been affected, mostly rural villagers in one of India's poorest states," she reported in a story that ran on Page A27. The Post's coverage has not pleased some readers, who say that the disaster has been given short shrift. One reader, having found more information from online versions of other news outlets, wondered if The Post was ignoring the story because "Orissa is not in Europe and does not have oil underground." After evaluating the international news that has been in The Post since the cyclone hit, another reader concluded that "The Post [has] undercovered such a disaster, which is the biggest devastation in India in the last 100 years."
Contrast that with a Nov. 13 front-page story, "Turkey Is Rocked By Another Quake; Second Temblor in 3 Months Kills Dozens, Injures Hundreds," which reported that the quake had claimed at least 120 lives. There have been stories on that earthquake most recently in conjunction with President Clinton's visit to Turkey. When an earthquake devastated parts of western Turkey last summer, that, too, was front-page on Aug. 17 and for six consecutive days thereafter. Two additional front-page stories ran later in August. And less than a month later, an earthquake in Taiwan, which was even more powerful than the one in Turkey and claimed some 2,400 lives, made the front page twice, on Sept. 21 and 22. Other substantial stories ran inside the paper.
But the cyclone in India never made it onto The Post's front page. "We were a little late on that," said Phil Bennett, the assistant managing editor for foreign news. Constable's story wasn't deemed front-page news, he said, because "the urgency had passed." Of covering natural disasters from Hurricane Mitch in Central America last year to Hurricane Floyd in the United States last summer to the Orissa cyclone, he said: "It's about as scientific as predicting the weather." He denies that "there's sort of a geographic determinism in which disasters we pay attention to more than others."
The Post and other major news operations have long been accused of ignoring some parts of the world. The accusation was heard loudly last summer when comparisons were made by international relief workers and by some news media that the Balkan conflicts received far more coverage than comparable struggles in Africa. Indeed, The Post editorialized on the matter last June as "one of the bloodiest wars of the '90s" seemed to be coming to an end. "We refer here not to Kosovo but to West Africa's Sierra Leone. You missed the news? It happened with hardly any of the acclaim that marked the breakthrough in Kosovo." Indeed, in the same period that The Post ran 344 stories from Kosovo, elsewhere in Yugoslavia, Albania and Macedonia, correspondents in sub-Saharan Africa -- some of whom were actually sent to the Balkans for a while -- produced about 120 stories from Africa. Africa news is more often conveyed in news briefs, though a major exception should be an article about Sierra Leone that is now in the works by The Post's managing editor, Steve Coll. In my next column, I'll continue my focus on foreign news and Bennett's ideas about how The Post should cover the world in the post-Cold War era. In the meantime, on foreign news or anything else related to The Post's content, you may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 334-7582.