NPR's China Reporting: An Insult to 9/11 Victims

May 26, 2008

With the death count from last week's earthquake in China at 51,000 and possibly rising, and with more than five million Chinese homeless, the following comments may sound cold and crass; but, please know they are not meant to minimize the horrors and sufferings of the victims and their families. For what it's worth, my maternal grandparents came from China. End of disclaimers.

That said, it's time to get to the business at hand, which is the insensitive and incomplete reporting this week by National Public Radio that had a team in the People's Republic of China preparing a series of reports in anticipation of this summer's Olympic Games when the earthquake struck.

The story in question aired on the May 19 broadcast of "All Things Considered." The reporter led the feature on the start of the official three-day mourning period by calling the May 12 quake "China's 9/11." My first thought, and the first thoughts of the folks I talked with who heard it, was unbelief that a major U.S. news organization, heard by millions of listeners each day, would insult the victims of the worst terrorist attack on our nation's soil by comparing the events of September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93 over Shanksville, PA, to a natural disaster.

A former colleague from back in my television news days wrote in an e-mail: "I heard it on NPR while driving to work past the U.S. Capitol and nearly ran off the road. China's 9-11? Unbelievable."

If the NPR producers back home wanted to label the quake, why not call it "China's 5/12?" Better yet, why use any hype or hyperbole? The death and destruction speak for themselves.

A woman I know took great umbrage, because it brought back painful memories of some of the condolences offered following her sister's murder. "People meant well, I know that, but I was offended every time someone came up to me and told me they knew how I felt, because they had a close family member die of cancer," she said. "Murder and death by natural causes are nowhere near the same. Why do people always try to trivialize things?"


The second problem with the story was NPR's failure to put in historical perspective the loss of life from the disaster. One week after the quake, officials placed the death count at about 32,000, a number that goes up each day. Again, at the risk of sounding callous, and appreciating that even one death is grief beyond comprehension for a family, the May 12 quake did not approach the loss of life of other China quakes.

A quick online search by an intern back in the newsroom would have shown NPR's producers and editors that three earthquakes alone in the 20th century killed as many as one million Chinese: 180,000 in Kansu on December 16, 1920; 200,000 in Nanshan on May 22, 1927; and between 242,000 and 655,000 in Tangshan on July 28, 1976. The toll from the Tangshan quake is the equivalent of the death of nearly the entire population of Plano, Texas, on the low end, or more than everyone living in Fort Worth, Texas, on the high end.

And then, there is the Jan 23, 1556, quake in Shansi that killed 830,000, which would be akin to everyone living in and around Indianapolis, Ind.

In fact, even at this writing, the May 12 earthquake would not rank as the 21st century's deadliest in a single country. That distinction belongs to northern Pakistan, when at least 86,000 (about the population of Denton or Tyler, Texas) died on Oct. 8, 2005. The century's deadliest occurred on Dec. 26, 2004, when the Indian Ocean quake created a tsunami that resulted in 228,000 dead or missing in 14 nations.

NPR's producers and editors, and all who gather and disseminate news and information, should make a greater effort to put the events of the day in their proper or historical perspective, without histrionics and exaggeration. Their audiences deserve it.

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Copyright ©2008 John David Powell

John David Powell writes his Lone Star Award-winning columns from Shadey Hill Ranch in Texas. His email address is