Can Dawsonites be motivated to participate in long-term assistance for Pakistani flood victims or have students become too desensitized to care
By Noelia Gravotta
The floods in Pakistan that began in late July and peaked at the end of August have by now receded, but the crisis in the country is just beginning. Over 20, 0000 people have been affected – more than the combined total for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Agriculture has been disrupted and the next harvest may only occur in 2012. Pakistan has lost the ability to feed itself.
Pakistan has long suffered from political and financial instability; the floods have only worsened the situation. The cost of repairing the damage has been estimated at $7.1 billion.
“We have an unconscious tendency to seek news in accordance with our values, or we feel uneasy,” said Gupta “There are so many choices and one can choose what they read in online newspapers. And if you go straight to Facebook, you don’t even see other things.”
The story captured international attention in late summer. Yet when asked, the majority of Dawson students interviewed had to think hard to remember what they heard about the situation. Teachers tended to be more informed, but similarly uninvolved. Some students and teachers attribute the lack of attention or aid to the geographical and cultural distance between North America and Pakistan. Others mention Taliban presence in the country, which may make donors wary of who receives their aid dollars.
Finally, there is “compassion burnout,” in the words of one teacher. “There are so many disasters in the world every six months… shit happens,” third-semester Liberal Arts student Franco Sciannamblo said.
Above all, the common issue besetting Dawsonites is a lack of awareness. The immediate and long-term crisis Pakistan faces has faded from the front page – often from any page of newspapers. Broadcast news has moved on to more current, racy reports, often neglecting to remind viewers of the ongoing predicament. Consequently, the issue has faded from the collective consciousness.
“After the earthquake in Haiti, there was non-stop press coverage,” said second-year Liberal Arts student Lana Belber. “Therefore, information reached even those who did not watch the news and prompted many to take action.”
“The media controls what people know and what they care about,” Belber added. So why did the media not cover the disaster in Pakistan as extensively as that in Haiti?
Shawn Berry, department chair of political science, who has previously worked as a reporter, provided various answers to this question. For one, reporters and news companies must think about business – what is more likely to bring in the bucks. They consider the proximity factor, or how close the event is to the target audience. Haiti is geographically closer than Pakistan, and, in some ways culturally as well, being a French-speaking nation.
There is also the logistical problem. Covering international news is costly. Getting helicopters, news teams, and cameras to Pakistan is much more expensive than to Haiti.
Moreover, in 2005, Pakistan experienced an earthquake which killed about 75,000 people. Perhaps this explains reporters’ zeal to cover Haiti, being a new story, instead of going back to Pakistan. “In effect”, said Berry, “Pakistan suffered because it experienced disasters so close to each other.”
Finally, Berry adds that broadcast news loves shocking visuals. This idea was echoed by some students, such as Sciannamblo, who said, “Haiti’s images were shocking… bodies, ruined buildings. In Pakistan, you don’t see the destruction, you just see the water.”
Dipti Gupta, faculty member of Cin/Video/Com, believes that there is also the issue of prejudice. “There is so much in the news about terrorism and corruption in Pakistan,” she says, “that it sways our mindset.”
Haiti was fortunate in having more sympathetic coverage, Gupya said. Furthermore, prominent Haitians in North America, such as former governor-general Michaëlle Jean, helped garner support for the nation.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Pakistan. Lacking prominent Pakistani community members, North Americans receive negative information from the traditional news media. “The media focuses on Pakistan being a poor, undemocratic, chaotic nation,” said Gupta. “But that should not reflect badly on its citizens.”
Sarah Khan, a second-year studying kinesiology at McGill, has on many occasions encountered the biases about Pakistan promoted by the news. While volunteering at awareness and fundraising events about the floods, she said, “some people passing by our information booths on the street would argue with us. They asked us, ‘why should we care? Why should we donate?’ They spoke a lot about terrorism and Pakistan’s corrupt government. We told people that we were giving to NGOs, reliable organizations, but people didn’t always respond positively.”
She added, “the media always puts Pakistan together with something negative… But this is a humanitarian problem. We’re not talking about government, we’re talking about people.”
While news media has a large role to play in our knowledge of world issues, Dawsonites’ lack of awareness is also an individual problem. Berry and Gupta both are surprised at how few teenagers tune into the news. “Every week in my social issues class, in a class of 30 students, there’s one person who reads the newspapers. And this is a social issues class,” Gupta said.
Berry sees the same occurring in his Media and Culture class. “Sometimes I have to explain who the NDP is! Yet they know who Lady Gaga and Justin… what’s that guy’s name?” he said “Your generation is not interested in the news… You’re more likely to be on Facebook,” Berry despairs.
So how are teenagers getting informed at all?
When teens do get information, Berry claims, it tends to be secondhand, either from friends or from class discussions. The problem with secondhand information lies in its ability to be skewed by those sharing the information. “Opinion leaders”, as Berry calls them, are the few individuals who do inform themselves, but when sharing information, they consciously or unconsciously promote their point of view and belittle the opposing side.
“The media always puts Pakistan together with something negative…But this is a humanitarian problem. We’re not talking about government, we’re talking about people.”
“It’s troublesome,” he says. “Part of being a respectable citizen is to be informed. In my classes, I argue you should expose yourself to different media than you normally would.” Or else, Berry warns, “You get a distorted view of reality. It does not make for a healthy democracy.”
There is also the problem of selective attention and exposure. “People tune out a lot of what they hear,” notes Berry. “We have an unconscious tendency to seek news in accordance with our values, or we feel uneasy.” It is difficult to avoid the headlines in a print newspaper. But with the Internet, tuning out is made easier. “There are so many choices, and one can choose what they read in online newspapers. And if you go straight to Facebook, you don’t even see other things.”
And so, because of a combination of news company control of information and lack of awareness on the part of students, “people aren’t talking about Pakistan,” said first-year Commerce student Chaïma El Hafiane. “They don’t know what’s going on.” After political science teacher Cynthia Martin asked two of her classes what they knew about the Pakistan floods, El Hafiane’s claim proved true: in one class of 25 students, half were aware of the catastrophe. In another class of 31, only one knew of it.
The solution to this mass ignorance is a difficult one. The flooding itself has been over for more than two months; nonetheless, is there still hope for Dawson to build the awareness and sympathy required for long-term assistance to Pakistan?
Reactions are mixed. Some students are pessimistic. First-year Commerce student Moner Hammudi argued, “It’s not that they don’t know, they don’t care.”
On the other hand, most of those interviewed believe that the situation here can be changed if there is a massive sensitization effort.
Humanities teacher Rui de Sousa believes “this personal approach by fundraisers would motivate people to get involved… They would identify with victims through the fundraising volunteers.”
This could potentially work as the students interviewed who asserted, “we’re all egocentric assholes,” mentioned that bake sales are a sure-fire way of raising money. In the words of Health Science student Ariela Lenetsky: “Dude, if there was a cupcake, I would definitely buy a cupcake.”
Moreover, let us not forget that, as self-absorbed as Dawsonites claim to be, we have a great ability for empathy. Political science teacher Martin remarked, “In a tragedy, it amazes me to see how we coalesce, like platelets of blood. It’s inherent in us as a species.
Inform yourself and donate to any number of reputable organizations, such as UNICEF Canada, The International Development and Relief Foundation (IDRF), Médecins sans frontiers, and the Aga Khan Foundation Canada.
And for goodness’ sake… read the news.