Wednesday, February 3

U.S. media coverage of the Cuzco flood crisis

When 400 American citizens are stranded at Machu Picchu, people want news about what's happening to their neighbor or family member. I can understand that a U.S. paper needs to sell to that audience.

But being in Peru during Cuzco's floods gave me a different look at the U.S. media's coverage of the floods in Cusco--an embarrassingly shallow analysis of a serious crisis. 

By the way the articles framed the flooding, I would have thought that a Peruvian losing his home and a year's crop was somehow comparable to tourists being "bored" and not able to use their credit card for four days.

Here's the facts of the flood:

The rains in Cuzco left 26,000 families affected, 4,500 homes destroyed, 39,500 acres of crops decimated and $100 million+ in damages, said Peru 21.  At least 14 bridges were carried away by the raging flood waters. Two thousand tourists were stranded after the railway and roads to Machu Picchu were gutted by mudslides. The area was placed under a state of emergency. 

Machu Picchu will be closed for at least two months while they repair the roads and railways, costing the 175,000 people dependent on tourism in Cuzco an estimated $1 million per day. That's not to mention the entry fees collected by the government--2,200 people per day each paying 70-something bucks. 

While the rains have been strongest in Cuzco, flooding has caused deaths, lost homes and lost crops in seven other central/southeastern departments in Peru.  According to AFP, the death toll across southern Peru had reached 20 by Saturday, with five people were missing.

This, however, is what the U.S. media reported back:

On Monday, January 25, the AP covered the 2,000 trapped tourists at Machu Picchu. They included one sentence close to the bottom of the article about the damage and Peruvian deaths in Cuzco. At this point, a state of emergency had already been declared, but there's no mention of that. 

The next day, the AP did finally mention the Peruvian deaths due to the flooding in the context of the deaths of a tourist and his guide. Only in the last sentence of the article was it mentioned that the flooding in the region had caused $172 million in damage. 

As the last tourists were flown out of the Machu Picchu pueblo, the ruins' "base camp," the AP again focused on the poor tourists' plight, leaving one sentence about the devastating flood damage affecting average Peruvians in the area. There was nothing about the deaths. 

CNN gets the prize for the most obnoxious headline: "Stranded tourists battle flooding, boredom in Machu Picchu." Boredom, seriously? 

This bit on a Dutch tourist exemplifies the media's strikingly shallow analysis:
"The only inconvience for him is being able to use his credit card at businesses such as restaurants, but he expects to get to the capital city of Lima in time to leave for a jaunt to Africa "if everything goes well."
"We're just bored," Fredrik told CNN.
Or maybe this story wasn't shallow at all. Maybe CNN's Joe Sterling was trying to poke fun at this tourist? Because on this AP video, you can see that some foreigners weren't bored--they were actually helping out!

Anyway, CNN did mention the regional crisis a bit faster than the AP; only a third of the way into the piece, a paragraph addressed the seven deaths and houses and crops destroyed. 

I was most disappointed in The New York Times' only story on the flooding. It finally appeared on Thursday, January 28, just a day before everyone was evacuated and the "tourist crisis" was over. The article mentions briefly the 10 deaths in the region and that houses were lost, but fails to mention that the Cuzco region was under a state of emergency, thousands of crop were destroyed. Nor does it place the Machu Picchu situation in perspective by discussing it's effect on the region's tourism-dependent economy. 

U.S. media coverage wasn't an entire sham: Dow Jones' newswire had a good article that really covers the breadth of the flood's impact in southeastern Peru.

But, as I shame U.S. journalists, I should disclose that the title of my last blog post on  the issue was, "Stranded at Machu Picchu?" Yeah, that's the one where I was all sad about how this was affecting my travel plans. Touché? 

*Sigh.* I guess I thought you might actually click on it if you saw that headline. So did CNN and the AP

Update: It's not U.S. journalism, but The Economist finally did a good piece on the flooding.

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