The hid­den cost of the Thai cave res­cue’s nev­erend­ing me­dia cov­er­age

The world was trans­fixed by the story of a foot­ball team stuck in a cave in north­ern Thai­land as re­porters from all over the planet filed up­dates to a hun­gry pub­lic – but what about news of other horrors in for­got­ten places?

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - OPIN­ION AND PHOTO BY MATT BLOMBERG

IF

you were sta­tioned at the Tham Luang caves in the far north of Thai­land for a week, as I was, you’d have thought the op­er­a­tion to res­cue 12 boys and a foot­ball coach trapped un­der­ground for more than two weeks was the only thing that mat­tered in the world.

In­un­dated caves. Jagged rock. Mon­soon rains. Ema­ci­ated chil­dren. Race against time. Eyes of the world. Fate of the boys. Death-de­fy­ing mis­sion. Pre­car­i­ous es­cape. Heli­copter evac­u­a­tion. Elon Musk. Bud­dhist monks. Cave boys. Manch­ester United. World Cup seats. Navy Seal dies. Prime min­is­ter vis­its. He­roes – many, many he­roes, plus a new tourist at­trac­tion.

It was a whirl­wind of well-worn words and phrases as hun­dreds of re­porters tus­sled for some­thing unique that might im­press their over­lords – ed­i­tors sit­ting at desks far away.

For plenty, truth and sen­si­tiv­ity went out the win­dow, ca­su­al­ties of the chase. Ru­mours al­most evolved into facts, then melted back into noth­ing­ness as the next big “could be” came along.

When a heli­copter buzzed over the me­dia pit late on Day 2 of the res­cue, re­porters scram­bled. “Fifth boy free!” they cried. Cam­eras fired up, pre­sen­ters wiped their brows, tweet­ers tweeted and old-fash­ioned hacks, my­self in­cluded, be­gan fill­ing in de­tails on story tem­plates they’d pre­pared.

The ap­pear­ance of a heli­copter on Day 1 meant a boy had been spir­ited to safety. So to­day’s heli­copter meant that too, right? But what if this heli­copter was on a dif­fer­ent mis­sion? What if a res­cue diver had died?

Two days af­ter the ema­ci­ated boys emerged, a friend mes­saged ask­ing where I was. When I told him I was still in Mae Sai, he re­sponded with typ­i­cal cheek, but only half kid­ding: “They are all out now. You lot can go home.”

When I fi­nally made it back to Phnom Penh, I climbed the stairs to an old haunt where I knew I’d find a fa­mil­iar face – some­one to ground me af­ter a week on a story high. When I told an old friend where I’d just come from (the most im­por­tant place in the world), he, too, was unim­pressed.

“Oh, that. Je­sus, is it over? It’s been driv­ing me mad for weeks. Ev­ery time I turn on the tele­vi­sion or look at a news­pa­per…” His words trailed off, his eyes red with World Cup all-nighters that might’ve been as much to blame for his mood as the end­less saga of the Cave Boys. “They’re all out safe days ago, right? How much more de­tail do we need?”

I had al­ready writ­ten a cou­ple of sto­ries about the ethics of stak­ing out a hos­pi­tal, of ha­rangu­ing des­per­ate fam­i­lies and of dis­tract­ing divers as the res­cue mis­sion bal­anced on a knife’s edge.

But this weary friend’s dress­ing down took my mind to an­other ques­tion­able ele­ment of the cov­er­age given to the Cave Boys: the cost. Not just the fi­nan­cial cost, but the op­por­tu­ni­ty­cost, as well.

How many sto­ries had gone un­told as the world’s me­dia gath­ered in Mae Sai and stood side-by-side get­ting spoon-fed the same quotes, the same in­for­ma­tion, at the same press con­fer­ences, where they’d all cap­ture al­most iden­ti­cal pho­tos and video?

Why is round-the-clock cov­er­age of the res­cue so im­por­tant – es­pe­cially when ex­perts have al­ready re­vealed a four-hour win­dow when the boys are likely to emerge? And why

does ev­ery out­let have to be on the story?

I can only guess that, like just about every­thing in our world, the an­swer is money.

Stream­ing and piracy have stolen the mar­ket for hu­man eyes and brains seek­ing to be en­ter­tained by a screen, and events like the Tham Luang cave res­cue give tele­vi­sion net­works a chance to win back some of their lost pie.

Build­ing the sus­pense with on­go­ing cov­er­age is vi­tal to keep­ing the viewer – and thereby ad­ver­tis­ers – en­gaged.

So TV bosses spent small for­tunes to fly in pro­duc­tion teams and their gear from around the world. They rented ho­tel rooms, vans, driv­ers, lo­cal pro­duc­ers, fix­ers, trans­la­tors, se­cu­rity. When fa­tigue be­came an is­sue, they flew in a new team to ro­tate the first one out.

The out­lay for some would run eas­ily into the tens of thou­sands. But they couldn’t miss the story.

For news­pa­pers, putting a re­porter at the scene is an in­vest­ment in le­git­i­macy, al­low­ing sto­ries to start with the date­line – “Mae Sai, THAI­LAND” – which would in the­ory lead to more peo­ple pay­ing to read.

And for on­line-only out­lets, a re­porter on the scene equals a live blog, which equals clicks and hits that trans­late di­rectly into ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars.

It’s all a bit cart be­fore horse.

Me­dia as a busi­ness is old news, sure. But be­ing in­side the ma­chine re­port­ing what might, if you sub­tract Trump, turn out to be the big­gest news story of the year spoke to that idea like never be­fore.

The world hung on the fate of 13 young souls for three weeks. But dur­ing that same time, how many boys drowned in the Mediter­ranean, were killed in Ye­men or starved to death in South Su­dan? Where was the wall-to-wall cov­er­age on those sto­ries? What made the story of the Cave Boys so spe­cial?

I sup­pose it all comes down to dol­lars. Re­porters chase sto­ries for ed­i­tors who chase dol­lars for their bosses. Those other sto­ries of other horrors from around the world have largely run their course for now, at least un­til events there strike a new level of hor­ror. Then the world might be ready to tune back in.

Me­dia as a busi­ness is old news, sure. But be­ing in­side the ma­chine re­port­ing what might turn out to be the big­gest news story of the year spoke to that idea like never be­fore

NVol­un­teers make of­fer­ings to a de­ity dur­ing a Bud­dhist cer­e­mony to cleanse the Tham Luang caves of bad karma

matt blomberg is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based incam­bo­dia.

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