As the world’s media was dishing out a play-by-play on the Thai cave rescue this week, a ferry sank on the other side of the country, with rescuers working through heavy weather to retrieve the bodies of Chinese tourists and Thai crew. There were 49 people rescued — the remaining 56 people on board were either confirmed dead or missing. Thirteen of the dead were children.

In Japan, the death toll from serious flooding has reached 155, and rescue workers have been digging through rubble in efforts to find survivors.

Whenever a story like this captures the attention of the media and the public, there are inevitably cries of “what about …”, asking why other, worthy stories weren’t getting as much prominence in the news. The children on Nauru. The children of Yemen. The children of Central America. Refugees in the Mediterranean. And the list goes on.

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University of Melbourne Centre for Advancing Journalism’s Dr Denis Muller told Crikey that the Thai cave rescue story hit a few really strong news values that determine what makes a story.

All the makings of a super story

Firstly, it was unexpected. “No one expected that they’d be found alive,” he said. “Survival stories like this are rare, I can remember only two” — referring to the Thredbo landslide in 1997 in which Stuart Diver was the sole survivor, and the Beaconsfield mine disaster in 2006.

Muller said another reason the cave story resonated with Australian audiences was that there were pictures of the boys in the cave, and new pictures keep coming now they’re out, too.

“We have seen the boys — seen them smiling, eating, wrapped in thermal blankets. That brings us close to them and helps us tune in to what they’re going through,” he said. “The technical term for it is consonance: we can imagine our own kids and how we would feel as parents if they were trapped like that.”

The Japan example is missing the familiar faces and human story, Muller said. “(It) has no faces we can get familiar with, no specific human story with which we can identify. And it’s another big broad disaster of the kind we have seen countless times before.” he said. 

The Thai cave story also has an Australian connection — the doctor who went into the cave, Richard Harris, is from Adelaide. “The involvement of Australians in the [Thai] rescue added a sense of proximity that the Japan story lacks for Australian audiences,” Muller said.

But the element that kept the story at the top of news bulletins and on the front pages was the pure drama of it all. There was the race against the rain, the danger, the courage of the rescue team, and how long the rescue took.

“We’re on the edge of our seats, hoping they all get out,” Muller said. “(In Japan), the keen edge of drama that so characterised the cave rescue is missing. The floods have happened. It’s all about the aftermath, whereas we lived the cave story as it unfolded. And that took days.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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