Does news coverage of tragedies like in Bangladesh worsen the problem?


9:10 am - May 1st 2013

by Chris Dillow    


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In 2010, 140,000 children aged under five died in Bangladesh. If the country had the same mortality rate (pdf) as the UK, only around 15,000 would have done so. This implies that around 125,000 Bangladeshi children die each year from poverty.

This fact, however, does not feature prominently in nightly news bulletins, even though it is equivalent to two Rana Plaza collapses every week.

There is, of course a simple reason for this. The news reports abnormal events, not normal ones; "dog bites man" is not news. Collapsing buildings are abnormal and so newsworthy whilst acute poverty is normal and so isn't news.

This bias is inherent in the nature of news. And yet it can be misleading. You cannot understand why so many Bangladeshis tolerate working in sweatshops until you realize that doing so gives their children not just a better chance in life, but a better chance of life. Thanks in part to the economic development brough by those sweatshops, child mortality in Bangladesh has fallen.

However, news reports which draw attention to the evils of sweatshops but not to those of rural poverty understate the benefits which such sweatshops have brought. Yes, they're hellholes which perhaps could and should be improved upon – but they're better than the alternative.

In this sense, news generates a bias amongst its western consumers; it encourages a hostility to globalization and industrialization even though these are – albeit imperfect – routes out of poverty.

There's a parallel here with attitudes towards crime reporting. It's a commonplace that whilst crime has fallen in recent years, the fear of it hasn't. A big reason for this, I suspect, is that violent crime – being abnormal – gets reported whilst folks living safely, being normal, does not. Ordinary reporting thus warps our perspective.

You cannot reasonably judge a probability distribution merely by looking at the far tail of it. But this is what the news invites us to do. 

There's another relevant bias here. Whilst under-reporting deaths from rural poverty the news is full of the doings of the rich and powerful. This too can have pernicious unintended effects. Laboratory experiments (pdf) have found that the mere act of communicating with others can induce them to behave more altruistically towards us. This implies that we are likely to be better-disposed towards the rich and powerful than we otherwise would be, and less well-disposed to the silent poverty-stricken billions. This too generates a bias towards tolerating poverty.

I say all this as a caveat to a common complaint. Everyone complains – with justification  – about bad, right-wing, dumbed-down linkbait journalism. But even when journalists are doing their jobs well, they are contributing to some unpleasant biases, by the very nature of what constitutes news. You cannot, rationally, base your political opinions in what your see in the news.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments


1. andrew adams

I think there are good reasons why the factory collapse got such widespread coverage in this country. Firstly, whatever the right and wrongs of the general working conditions in sweatshops I think it should be pretty easy to agree that people’s lives should not be endangered simply by turning up to work. Secondly, those workers, or at least a number of them, were producing goods for the UK market and even if one dismisses any notion of responsibility on the part of Primark (or its customers) it may still be fair to ask if they can or should do anything to improve the lot of those producing their goods.

@ Andrew adams Brilliant, completely missing the point that trade is what is improving their lot. It is not for you to decide what is in other people’s best interests – I think you will find that the other people are better informed.

3. andrew adams

Stuart,

I don’t think I missed the point at all. Yes, trade improves people’s lives, having a factory fall down on their head does not. It shouldn’t be necessary for them to risk the latter in order to benefit from the former, nor is it particularly presumptuous to think that what happened to the people working in Rana Plaza was not in their best interests. And judging by the protests which have taken place in Dhaka the Bangladeshi people don’t think it an acceptable price to pay.

4. Shatterface

However, news reports which draw attention to the evils of sweatshops but not to those of rural poverty understate the benefits which such sweatshops have brought. Yes, they’re hellholes which perhaps could and should be improved upon – but they’re better than the alternative.

And that fertilizer plant in Texas was probably ‘better than the alternative’ – until it exploded. Ditto Cherlobyl, Three Mile Island, Union Carbide in Bophal, etc.

In this sense, news generates a bias amongst its western consumers; it encourages a hostility to globalization and industrialization even though these are – albeit imperfect – routes out of poverty.

Well, in a sense, the victims of this incident are no longer poor.

Does it worsen the problem? It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s possible that Bangladesh can improve its health & safety without losing its market share.

It’s also possible that Primark and Walmart could help them do so. They need to be encouraged to work with employers to improve standards rather than to shop around for the cheapest they can get away with.

There’s a wiff of smugness in the isn’t-it-awful-what-they-do-over-there style of coverage this tragedy is receiving. We need to be clear about our role as the wealthy in the globalised marketplace.

Well the fastest way to solve this problem is to buy as much “cheap” stuff as possible from the developing world.

Chinese manufacturing wages for example have risen 14% per annum since 2000, and working conditions have also improved.

The past 20 years or so has seen the fastest and most widespread fall in global poverty in history.

7. Planeshift

I think chris makes an important point about the media and the way it defines news.

But I’m not happy with the complacency with which Chris treat’s sweatshops.

I can understand the argument that sweatshops offer a better alternative than subsistence farming or scavanging in rubbish dumps. But I am not happy with the idea that populating 3rd world countries with sweatshops is the only way to achive development, even if it is a temporary stage (lasting decades in the process). Frankly if this is the best you can do then go back to the drawing board.

The sad fact of the world is that there are always going to be countries that are in civil war, are emerging from civil war, or simply where the governments have been crap for years. I.e places where you find sweatshops. It may be that when a place develops sufficiently the pendulum swings away from the owners of sweatshops and workers are able to quit for better alternatives, but all that happens is new sweatshops will pop up in places that haven’t yet developed. Sometimes the defence of sweatshops reads exactly like the defence that was once made of slavery (a necessary part of development).

8. andrew adams

#6

Sure, choosing to buy clothes made in Bangladesh or other developing countries may well help improve the conditions of workers in those countries more quickly. Some people might go further and specifically buy from retailers who pledge to impose minimum standards for wages, working conditions etc. on their producers. The point is that these are conscious decisions which people can make which have consequences, these things aren’t just determined by magical market forces over which we can have no control.

9. Luis Enrique

“the fastest way to solve this problem is to buy as much “cheap” stuff as possible from the developing world.”

a faster way might be to buy as much “cheap” stuff as possible from the developing world, with some – but not too much – pressure from Western firms on this suppliers to accelerate improvements in worker rights, safety etc. And maybe even some assistance.

where “too much” would result in those sweatshops closing down and jobs being lost.

Planeshift I can see where you’re coming from, but all too often rather than doing anything to come up with a better mechanism for economic development, the response is to boycott sweatshops which – if it achieves anything – just means poor people lose their jobs.

10. Richard W

Chris is correct to say how the news is presented to us distorts our perceptions. But equally the news purveyors also knows what sells.

Nobody is interested in a headline of:

Markets calm, everything is fine.

What sells is:

Meltdown.

People die in road traffic accidents everyday. However, only when lots of people die in the same event is there any national sympathy. Same thing for sporting event deaths, fires etc we pay little attention to the single deaths and overreact to the low probability high impact occurrences. Company caught using child labour results in outrage. Hundreds of millions of subsidence farmers using child labour is supporting a traditional lifestyle. The bottom line is we are hypocrites with compromised ideas of what constitutes so-called morality.

I would not knowingly invest in or buy products from a company using child labour. Most people are the same. Yet the same type of people who would freak out at the thought of buying a T shirt produced using child labour, think nothing of buying agricultural produce from the side of the road in the developing world. The contradiction and hypocrisy when that too has been produced using child labour does not seem to register.

The hidden deaths in the developing world and the overreaction to when lots occur in the same place is just part of our selective blindness. The globalisation of trade has led to dramatic reductions in poverty. Peru recently announced that they had halved their poverty rate over the last 10 years alone. However, I agree with the News Statesman writer who said this case is not really about trade and globalisation. It is about not complying with the law. No one would deny textiles are sourced from Bangladesh because labour is cheaper there. However, firms ought to obey the law and building standards etc in the jurisdiction where they operate. It is not an unreasonable burden for western firms to ensure their suppliers are in fact complying with local laws.

11. Planeshift

“Planeshift I can see where you’re coming from, but all too often rather than doing anything to come up with a better mechanism for economic development, the response is to boycott sweatshops which – if it achieves anything – just means poor people lose their jobs.”

Basically one of two things happen; (1) western brand names insist on minimum standards, this leads to them only buying goods from those factories that meet standards and thus drives up standards as the financial incentive remains to sell to the west.

Or (2) consumers simply boycott one brand (and people lose jobs) and switch to a brand that is doing exactly the same thing but has a more competent PR department.

But even number 2 leads to jobs being created elsewhere.

Is there evidence that significantly large boycotts lead to an overall harm?

It seems to me a lot of this defence of sweatshops is driven by a need to bash hippies more than anything

12. Planeshift

“The globalisation of trade has led to dramatic reductions in poverty. Peru recently announced that they had halved their poverty rate over the last 10 years alone”

The thing is, the anti-sweatshop campaigns largely emerged in the mid 90s on US campuses. A period where most of latin america was only emerging from decades of rule by right wing military juntas who nobody seriously claims had tackling poverty as their agenda.

The past 15 years or so has seen essentially the second decolonisation of latin america as left wing governments both militant (Chavez) and Moderate (Lula) have been elected and retained political power without being overthrown by the military. Peru itself not only got rid of Fujimori but got him in jail. Even in Latin American countries not electing left wing politicians, the lack of military coups would have sent a message to centre right politicians that the left had to be defeated in the ballot box not through the military. Thus creating an incetive to tackle poverty.

It’s just that most of the new left wing governments have been more pragmatic about sweatshops, capitalism and globalisation than the stereotype would have us believe. Id even say Lula was more a blairite than Blair. Hence they left sweatshops alone and cleverly devised ways of surfing the wave of globalisation in a manner that would generate revenue to spend on social programmes that would give workers an alternative.

Basically they operated left wing principles but designed them in economically literate and pragmatic ways. Similar perhaps to how the scandanavian countries have done so (though obviously with a different starting point).

There is a lesson for labour and the british left in that.

13. Shatterface

There’s another relevant bias here. Whilst under-reporting deaths from rural poverty the news is full of the doings of the rich and powerful. This too can have pernicious unintended effects. Laboratory experiments (pdf) have found that the mere act of communicating with others can induce them to behave more altruistically towards us. This implies that we are likely to be better-disposed towards the rich and powerful than we otherwise would be, and less well-disposed to the silent poverty-stricken billions. This too generates a bias towards tolerating poverty.

The pdf you link to doesn’t even begin to demonstrate what you are claiming it does.

Showing rich people wallowing in excess is not the same as rich people ‘communicating’. You might as well claim that nees footage of Fred West made people more sympathetic.

14. andrew adams

#10,

Of course we can all avoid being hypocrites by never trying to take any kind of principled stance on anything ever. Give me someone who at least tries to do the right thing, even if they are sometimes inconsistent, over someone who just doesn’t give a toss.

15. So Much for Subtlety

3. andrew adams

It shouldn’t be necessary for them to risk the latter in order to benefit from the former

It shouldn’t. But is it? You should not confuse is with ought. Is there another way to improve the lives of poor people in Bangladesh? Well many other ways have been tried. From where I sit they all seem to have failed. Only this way works. But if you know of a better way, by all means, let us know. We only have to look over the border to India where the Permit Raj has tried it some other way – lots of regulations for the benefit of workers – and we can see that does not work.

nor is it particularly presumptuous to think that what happened to the people working in Rana Plaza was not in their best interests.

But was it in the best interests of poor people in Bangladesh as a whole? Obviously not I would think. Because more regulation of Primark means less work for them.

5. Cherub

Does it worsen the problem? It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s possible that Bangladesh can improve its health & safety without losing its market share.

Is it? Realistically, is it? Why are you sure?

It’s also possible that Primark and Walmart could help them do so. They need to be encouraged to work with employers to improve standards rather than to shop around for the cheapest they can get away with.

How is working with employers going to help some bastard of a landlord paying off a government official to pass his building as safe? Must Primark also work with builders?

7. Planeshift

But I am not happy with the idea that populating 3rd world countries with sweatshops is the only way to achive development, even if it is a temporary stage (lasting decades in the process). Frankly if this is the best you can do then go back to the drawing board.

Fine. You do not like it. Go back to the drawing board. Let us know when you have a better alternative. Because I don’t see one. And people like you have tried, God knows they have tried, to come up with a better way. At their worst, they have left millions of dead people. The Great Leap Forward or the Holomodor were not better alternatives. India’s Permit Raj has not been a better alternative. What is left? The choices seem to be cheap sweatshops for a generation or grinding rural poverty forever.

but all that happens is new sweatshops will pop up in places that haven’t yet developed.

And in the end there will be no more undeveloped places.

Sometimes the defence of sweatshops reads exactly like the defence that was once made of slavery (a necessary part of development).

Who defended slavery was a necessary part of development – I mean apart from the mainstream left when it came to the Soviet Union and the Gulag?

16. So Much for Subtlety

10. Richard W

However, firms ought to obey the law and building standards etc in the jurisdiction where they operate. It is not an unreasonable burden for western firms to ensure their suppliers are in fact complying with local laws.

And how do you propose that Primark determines if their supplier is renting space from a landlord who decades ago paid off a government building inspector or not?

11. Planeshift

Basically one of two things happen; (1) western brand names insist on minimum standards, this leads to them only buying goods from those factories that meet standards and thus drives up standards as the financial incentive remains to sell to the west.

Actually no. Wages are still determined by the market. If you have a lot of poor people and you have a small number of well paying jobs, there will be many many applicants for those jobs. That distortion of the market will not push up standards across the board. It will have many unusual side effects. You may get the problem of Pakistani doctors cleaning streets in Saudi Arabia – road sweepers were at one time paid so much that some Pakistanis with real degrees chose to work there. With all the flow on effects to the rest of the economy. Would it help Bangladesh if you had to have a degree in engineering to work for Primark’s suppliers?

But the more likely side effect is that the higher wages will be off set in some other way. They may charge workers for the chance to work. An illegal kick back. How would Primark know? Or more likely, the guy handing out the jobs will demand blow jobs from all the female workers. If it is paid that well, he will get them too.

12. Planeshift

A period where most of latin america was only emerging from decades of rule by right wing military juntas who nobody seriously claims had tackling poverty as their agenda.

I think most people, if they thought about it for two seconds, would see that the military juntas did have an agenda of tackling poverty. And indeed they had a lot of success in doing so. Brazil’s present social reforms are built on the industrialisation of the military period.

The past 15 years or so has seen essentially the second decolonisation of latin america as left wing governments both militant (Chavez) and Moderate (Lula) have been elected and retained political power without being overthrown by the military.

I do not know how you can call that decolonisation when in fact it has been the US that has forced the military to stay in the barracks. Left to themselves, they would have intervened in several places by now, most obviously Venezuela.

It’s just that most of the new left wing governments have been more pragmatic about sweatshops, capitalism and globalisation than the stereotype would have us believe.

Because we are all Thatcherites now, even former Communist murderers.

14. andrew adams

Of course we can all avoid being hypocrites by never trying to take any kind of principled stance on anything ever. Give me someone who at least tries to do the right thing, even if they are sometimes inconsistent, over someone who just doesn’t give a toss.

Then this is probably a huge difference between the Left and the Right. Because I prefer doing to posing. It is not enough that you are conspicuously seen to be caring for the poor. You have to actually make them better off. Striking a pose no doubt attracts female university students – and I am all for that – but that is not the point. Does striking a pose for the workers of these sort of sweatshops help? I will bet it won’t. But the pose will bring more co-ed nookie I suppose. Actually buying their stuff will. Someone who tries to do the right thing but not only doesn’t, but doesn’t even care if he does or not is simply a tosser.

17. andrew adams

SMFS,

It shouldn’t. But is it? You should not confuse is with ought. Is there another way to improve the lives of poor people in Bangladesh? Well many other ways have been tried. From where I sit they all seem to have failed. Only this way works.

You seem to be assuming that it is not possible for the people of Bangladesh to benefit from globalisation AND have safe working conditions. I don’t see why that is true.

But the more likely side effect is that the higher wages will be off set in some other way. They may charge workers for the chance to work. An illegal kick back. How would Primark know? Or more likely, the guy handing out the jobs will demand blow jobs from all the female workers. If it is paid that well, he will get them too.

Oh FFS, so we have to ensure they have low wages for their own good? Or maybe that won’t happen, or if it does maybe it will be in a small minority of cases, unless you think all Bangladeshi bosses are inherently corrupt and their workers so easily corruptible.

Then this is probably a huge difference between the Left and the Right. Because I prefer doing to posing.

No, you are not in favour of “doing”. You and other right wingers are specifically arguing that nothing can be done, Bangladeshi workers have to accept the situation as it is and there is nothing anyone can do to consciously change the situation. This is not true and it is not “posing” to point this out.

18. the a&e charge nurse

‘You seem to be assuming that it is not possible for the people of Bangladesh to benefit from globalisation AND have safe working conditions. I don’t see why that is true’ – well, Chris there are probably more important reasons than press coverage as to why so many islamic states in general, and Bangladesh in particular seem to to be failing economically.

According to the graun, ‘The battle pits religious conservatives against more moderate, progressive voices in a fight to determine the future direction of the country – The most recent development is the emergence of a radical conservative Muslim party, Hefazat-e-Islam, as the standard bearer of the religious right. Earlier this month, at a huge rally in Dhaka attended by more than 100,000, the party issued 13 demands. They included the introduction of measures to stop “alien culture” making inroads in Bangladesh, the reinstatement of the line “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” in the nation’s constitution, which is largely secular’.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/16/bangladesh-hefazat-e-islam-women

19. So Much for Subtlety

17. andrew adams

You seem to be assuming that it is not possible for the people of Bangladesh to benefit from globalisation AND have safe working conditions. I don’t see why that is true.

You have no reason to think it is true. You seem to me to be merely wanting it so bad you are assuming it is. Perhaps if I were made Evil Overlord of the Universe I could fix it so that they could have both. But that is not going to happen. We have to deal with the world we have. And in that world, lots of people have felt like you and have tried to do both, but actually they have ended up with neither – most obviously in Bhopal where the Permit Raj’s refusal to allow foreign safe equipment was a major cause of the disaster.

So hope away. In reality, no you cannot have both.

Oh FFS, so we have to ensure they have low wages for their own good?

Come on, stop being childish. That is not what I said and you know it.

Or maybe that won’t happen, or if it does maybe it will be in a small minority of cases, unless you think all Bangladeshi bosses are inherently corrupt and their workers so easily corruptible.

No more or less than anyone else – and demands for sexual favours (from wives I hope) were common on British docks for instance until fairly recently. Maybe it won’t. On the other hand may be it will. We can see that in the West where there is a high demand for good jobs, sexual favours are demanded – Hollywood is a good example. A lot of people want jobs with limited skills and very good pay. So you have to blow the producer. Don’t even get me started on the Backstreet Boys.

Whatever else you say, it is likely that good jobs will be clawed back in some way. You can’t fight the market as it is made up of millions of individual decisions by individual participants. And if they can get something for what they have, they will.

No, you are not in favour of “doing”. You and other right wingers are specifically arguing that nothing can be done, Bangladeshi workers have to accept the situation as it is and there is nothing anyone can do to consciously change the situation. This is not true and it is not “posing” to point this out.

That is not true. We are buying Primark’s shirts. The workers of Bangladesh are making progress. Globalisation is working. We usually encourage that. They do not have to accept anything. They have to work to better themselves and improve their lives. The market is helping. Everyone who buys a t-shirt is helping. They can vote for more honest and liberal – in my sense, not your’s – parties.

In the meantime you did not praise someone who did something, you praised someone who struck a pose.


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