One of the oldest lessons in journalism is the five W’s. The who, what, where, when and why of an incident that shapes the stock standard coverage by media. Most people would argue that it’s the what that is most important, “what actually happened?”
But the tragedy off the coast of China involving the ablaze tanker, Sanchi, her 32 crew and the subsequent media coverage, shows that the who and where are just as important in driving media attention.
The what and when is essentially known. On Saturday 6 January, the oil tanker, Sanchi collided with the grain carrier, CF Crystal some 160 miles off the coast of Shanghai. The 32 sailors aboard the Sanchi died and only three bodies have been recovered. The tanker was carrying 136,000 tonnes of condensate. The why, like in most shipping incidents, won’t be answered until after official investigations are completed, which could take some time, so that leaves the who and the where.
Looking at the media coverage and comparing it to another recent major collision, the USS John S McCain, reveals some interesting disparities.
After the first five days, the Sanchi incident was covered in nearly 11,000 pieces globally, but in the same time frame the USS John S McCain had featured in more than 43,000.
Keep in mind there are similarities in that both cases are highly visible in terms of pictures and they feature deceased and missing seafarers, but the Sanchi had the added newsworthiness of a possible environmental disaster, with the added drama of flames and explosions. So how does one explain the disparity in interest?
Looking at the who provides some of the answers. The tanker Sanchi was operated by National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) and the missing crew members are 30 Iranian nationals and two Filipinos. The dead in the USS John S McCain were American navy sailors.
By any stretch of the imagination Iran is not known for its press freedom and NITC comes under the umbrella of the National Iranian Oil Company, a government-owned corporation under the direction of the Ministry of Petroleum of Iran.
Generally, any questioning or criticism of the government is frowned upon. When you throw in the recent protests, Iran's most significant in almost a decade resulting in at least 21 deaths and more than 3,700 arrests, then it becomes apparent that the nation had bigger problems at home to think about.
This is borne out in the figures with fewer than 100 news pieces out of nearly 11,000 globally appearing in Iran about this ongoing calamity.
Then there’s the other who and the where – China. The other vessel initially involved, the CF Crystal is Hong Kong registered and all 21 of its Chinese crew were unharmed in the collision.
The collision itself happened 160 nautical miles (300km) east of Shanghai, far enough off the coast so that the Chinese public didn’t feel immediately impacted. Pictures of the burning tanker have been provided largely by the Transport Ministry of China which was co-ordinating the search and rescue operation, so the flow of information and vision has been relatively controlled.
The cargo, condensate, which is an ultra-light version of crude oil is presented as less environmentally damaging than heavy crude and the Sanchi was drifting in a south easterly direction away from the coast.
The perception in China seems to be that the impact of this incident will be minimal and there’s limited interest amongst the largely government-controlled press with fewer than 1,000 articles out of 11,000 globally.
Certainly, the media interest in the first week shows that the who and the where can be just as important in driving or limiting media interest and coverage as the what. And of course, the best way to deal with these variables is to have access to a network that can provide local experts with local experience and language skills to deal with each situation as it unfolds.
The Sanchi was a big story, but imagine how big it would have been unfolding 160 miles off Long Beach, California and with a European crew.