Humans – the bad ones and the best

Originally published in MIT's The Tech Blogs on March 27, 2011

As I am writing a code of ethics for the news media in the digital age as part of my Master’s thesis, I found this recent CNN article on the burning story of Japan of particular interest. It’s asking an intriguing question:

March 15, 2011

Why is there no looting in Japan?

Posted: 05:00 PM ET

FROM CNN’s Jack Cafferty:

(extract) In the wake of Japan’s deadly earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant explosions, we have witnessed the almost indescribable chaos that follows a disaster of this magnitude: loss of life, severe injuries, homelessness, lack of water, food and proper medical care, the physical destruction of towns and cities, and a growing fear of radioactive contamination from power plants that seem beyond anyone’s ability to control.

But one heart-wrenching byproduct of disasters like this one has been missing in Japan, and that’s looting and lawlessness.

While I found that the author’s reasoning made a lot of sense and also found much truth in the readers’ comments, I cannot help thinking that the Western media’s representation and reporting of these disasters wittingly choose to focus – and I even suspect emphasize – the looting that goes on in certain places, typically located in or associated with ‘the South,’ to use a broad term – countries and communities where you will find ethnic minorities or (again broadly speaking) you will find ‘non-white’ residents. Stories of looting, various petty crimes and lawlessness made the headlines on the front pages of The New York Times and the like during the Katrina disaster (which affected mostly African-Americans), the earthquake in Haiti (which affected mostly Haitians), etc., and in the same vein, the Arab populations currently revolting in the Middle East and Northern Africa, even when they are doing so for the good purpose of demanding change and democracy, are not depicted in particularly endearing terms by the US media and immune from accusations of noisy, messy, chaotic and even violent acts and behaviors in the cities concerned. Often, those who are spared such suggestive descriptions are those activists and young urban dwellers who are equipped with- and ostensibly using (US-designed) technology and services such as cell phones and Facebook, as the lavish and encouraging recent coverage of such uses in the US press and online media attests – – to name but one.

For all the truths about national and cultural differences highlighted by the CNN Blog’s author – which I do believe to some extent – I find it hard, however, to believe that as human beings facing adversity, we can naturally, instinctively behave in starkly different ways, depending on our culture, nationality, upbringing or other environment-based factors. I am also extremely hesitant to label and declare an entire nation, society or even smaller community as ‘good,’ or somehow morally superior than another.

Even if the Japanese government, education system, traditions and social institutions do a more effective and successful job at defining and encouraging moral behavior in its citizens than their counterparts in other countries, I still believe that no human being, race or nationality is naturally, intrinsically morally better than another, even when challenged to the extreme. And while such differences and variations in moral conduct and outward behaviors certainly surface at the individual level, applying them uniformly, indiscriminately to an entire group of people, not to speak of a nation, is simplistic and dangerous.

Judging by the coverage of American and European journalists on such challenging events and how the people they affected coped and reacted, the US and Western mainstream media often seem too happy to focus and report on crime and its corollaries during such emergency situations in the Southern hemisphere, and to jump on every opportunity to show, for example, a Haitian man ‘stealing’ bottles of milk from a dilapidated store so as to feed his family, as I recall The New York Times reporting. Even though the paper acknowledged that it was in order to save lives, it still used the word “steal” in a story prominently placed in the print edition. Given that in cases of near total destruction, there is no more such things as functioning trade and business – or even a normally functioning economy, as in places like Somalia – I am not even sure that the concept of ‘stealing’ is still technically speaking feasible.

Yet Katrina, Iraq, earthquakes and mudslides in Peru and other reports in similarly located places inherited the same type of morally admonishing news coverage.

I just doubt that not a single bottle of milk was ‘stolen’ in the devastated Japanese cities…

Perhaps such violating behaviors – which I would still consider somewhat ‘normal’ and natural in such circumstances of survival – jar with the white elitist mental images and notions of sparkling clean, economically efficient, sushi-like cute and tech-savvy Japan.

In any case, my take is that biases and stereotypes are far from a thing of the past in our ‘new’ digital journalism.