On April 24 this year the Rana Plaza building in the Bangladeshi city of Savar collapsed killing more than 700 people and injuring about 2,500.
The accident has been described as Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster and other than the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, the most deadly structural failure in modern history.
Coverage by Western media was immediate and remains ongoing. The size of the disaster and the human culpability make the story intriguing and newsworthy.
Furthermore, the continued emphasis of foreign companies exploiting cheap Bangladeshi labour makes the story relatable to a Western audience. The brands found in the Rana Plaza rubble were well known. This ties the audience into the story due to its ongoing desire for cheaper clothes.
Fairfax Media’s South Asia Correspondent, Ben Doherty explains, “the sense of connection that Western readers feel for this story is strengthened by the fact that they feel they are directly linked to these people, at however many steps’ distance, by their role as consumers at the end of the supply chain.”
In the days following the tragedy Australian media followed a similar formula; lead with what happened, the death toll, relate the story back to exploited workers, give some detail of what local authorities and government are doing, quote an expert in human rights or a field related.
News Limited’s The Australian newspaper published the story “Dhaka sweatshop death toll soars”, sourced from the news agency Agence France Presse, in its world section on Friday April 26.
The story includes two colour photos, the first of military personnel lifting a man from the rubble. The second is of rescuers shuffling along a precarious ledge looking for survivors.
The lead paragraph mentions the current death toll and the criticism of companies that use labour in Bangladesh to make clothes.
The story mainly focuses on the safety problems of workers in factories in Bangladesh and finishes on what authorities are doing with the owners of the building.
The Age Online lead its story on Saturday April 27 with the news that 50 survivors had been found, giving hope to families that their loved ones may still survive.
The story from AFP, included more than 14 colour photos in between paragraphs, and in an album for readers to browse through.
The embedded video, produced by Reuters, essentially had the same information as the article, but included images of cracks in the building shot by local TV before the collapse.
The article mentions the names of some of the clothing brands found in the wreckage.
The World Today is a radio program on the ABC. It dedicated the first eight minutes of its program on April 26 to the tragedy in Bangladesh.
The first segment reported by Kumi Taguchi describes what happened and how workers were forced back inside the building, despite large cracks appearing in the wall.
The report uses a chilling grab from a man strapped in the rubble crying for help.
The story then turns to the editor of Source Journal who accuses the demand from US companies to keep manufacturing costs down as “breeding unsafe working conditions”.
Other interviews are conducted with the heads of the unions both overseas and in Australia.
The second segment on The World Today is an interview between the show’s host and Shelley Marshall, a lecturer at Monash University. Their discussion is about the pressures on Bangladeshi companies to remain competitive in the global market by keeping costs very low.
In the initial days after the accident, there was very little voice given to locals to explain the reason for the accident. All reporting referenced the terrible conditions for garment workers and engaged mainly Western experts including union representatives, human rights groups and academics.
The lack of local perspective and analysis could be explained by lack of access, most Australian media used the AFP or Associated Press reports. However, the consulting of Australians and Western commentators, could also be the media’s need to link the story to an Australian audience.
“For better or for worse, editors and journalists are always looking for a ‘local angle’. But a local angle will send a story like this from the world pages to the front of the book, and give a story the long-running currency that this one has demonstrated. The fact that these garments end up in the US, UK and Australia means that this collapse is news there,” said Mr Doherty.
When reporting on trauma, journalists must also be aware of the purpose of a story. According to a guide on reporting trauma by Radio for Peacebuilding Africa, “without a clear purpose, trauma journalism becomes sensationalism”.
One way to confirm purpose is to question if the story will help uncover a greater public policy issue or problem.
In the instance of the building collapse in Savar, Western media highlighted the plight of Bangladeshi workers and questioned whether multinational companies are responsible for the working conditions in which their products are made, rather than focusing on individual stories of those affected by the accident.
According to Mr Doherty, the style of coverage for this incident was because, “people are affected by this because of the horrific circumstances of the collapse, but because they feel connected to it, partly responsible because of their role in the supply chain.”
Mr Doherty also said the link back to Australian consumers was the angle most local media chose to use in reporting on this tragedy because “a lot of Australians will have a ‘Made in Bangladesh’ on a t-shirt or a pair of jeans in the cupboard”.