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Feeling pain half a world away

Usually blissfully ignorant, Americans have donated $500-million in private funds to tsunami victims.

Published January 21, 2005

Before the tsunami, people would ask him whether Sri Lanka was part of India.

But after Dec. 26, concerned strangers would ask Yasodha Ratnasekera, a native of Sri Lanka, if he had relatives who were affected.

An American living in Russia donated $500 towards an upcoming golf tournament in Plant City to raise money for Sri Lankan tsunami victims. One woman in New Tampa showed up at 6:30 a.m. to help arrange donations, including her own, at a charity yard sale this month.

For a moment, the world seemed to get a little smaller.

"It kind of crossed every barrier there is - color, religion, race, old, young, everybody," said Ratnasekera, 26, a Wesley Chapel resident.

Americans, usually blissfully ignorant of the everyday plight of billions of non-Westerners, have been paying attention since the tsunami. Many now know of - and have sent money to - places they had never heard of before: Banda Aceh, Indonesia; Colombo, Sri Lanka; and Phuket, Thailand.

While the U.S. government has pledged $350-million in aid to the area, Americans have donated nearly half a billion dollars in private funds.

This involvement is more surprising considering Americans' lack of prior interest in the region. In 2002, only 11 percent of young adults could find Indonesia on a map, according to a National Geographic-Roper Global Geographic Literacy survey.

Yet nearly six in 10 Americans closely followed news about the tsunami disaster, more than followed any other major foreign story over the past 17 years, a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press study found this month. The death of Princess Diana was a close second, followed by the opening of the Berlin Wall. The survey didn't count stories involving American troops or hostages.

"Even people who didn't even know there was a country called Sri Lanka, now I think pretty much everyone knows," said Vinita Witanachchi of New Tampa. "They won't think it's an exotic fruit."

It's hard to explain why this disaster grabbed Americans' attention. The scale of suffering across so many countries was one factor.

Teachers across the United States showed students where the devastated countries were on the map, and asked them to brainstorm ways to help.

The students are taking what they learned and turning it into "genuine social action to make a difference on the other side of the globe," said McMullen-Booth Elementary School teacher Carolyn Glass.

"I'm not a big news person - y'know what I mean? - but if there's something as big as a tsunami, I pay attention," said Katie Farrell, 10, who helped set up a lemonade stand in Clearwater that raised $430.30 for the American Red Cross.

"We've never done anything to help anyone else before," said Stephanie Blitz, 11, Katie's friend.

"It's great to start out at such a young age and understand what giving is about," said George Labanca, 49, who bought homemade cookies and cruellers from them.

Three of Katie's classmates heard about her efforts, and plan to publish a book of letters, poetry and artwork to send to - and raise money for - tsunami victims.

"We're going to write some nice things to make them feel good," said Emily Hackett, 10.

Academy at the Lakes student Kelsey Pitcairn wasn't taught about the tsunami in school, but she wanted to help anyway. As she watched the death toll rising, she felt helpless. She asked other students for donations, helping to raise $2,787 for the Patel Foundation for Global Understanding in Tampa.

"There's going to be problems there for decades," said Kelsey, 15, who's keeping tabs on how the money is being used in India. "I'll definitely be interested a year from now."

But not everyone has shown interest in one of the worst disasters in history.

"It's depressing to find out how little American students pay attention to these things," said Craig House, a High Point Elementary School teacher who tried discussing the disaster in class. "They're really not that interested - it didn't affect them. I feel they should be aware of what's happening out there in the world and they need to pay attention to it once in a while."

Americans tend to become aware of the rest of the world when the people there pose a threat or become victims, said Edward Wasserman, professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

"This is an enormous danger now to the state of ignorance we seem to dwell in," he said.

Many media outlets have cut back their newsgathering resources in countries outside the United States, Wasserman says. It's expensive, and what's the point if no one cares about famine in Africa?

Research by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School suggests that the amount of media attention a country gets here depends on how rich it is.

Harvard fellow Ethan Zuckerman used software to search websites of media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Associated Press and CNN, to examine how the press covers 180 different nations.

He found that violent conflict seems to have less effect on media attention than the size of a nation's economy. While Japan and Nigeria have similar populations, Japan garners seven times more stories.

In 1986, George Washington University professor William C. Adams looked at how American TV networks covered natural disasters across the world. He wondered, "Whose lives count?"

"Western European deaths (were) treated as far more newsworthy than deaths at the other extreme - Asia," Adams said. An earthquake in Italy received twice more coverage than one in the Philippines that caused eight times as many deaths.

The U.S. media devoted a disproportionate amount of tsunami coverage to the plight of Western tourists, said Paul Janensch, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

Then the focus shifted to the outpouring of aid and donations, and the controversy over whether the United States was being "stingy," he said. "The victims are almost an afterthought."

Janensch isn't hopeful that Americans will continue caring about what goes on across the globe.

"I think it will fade and we'll go back to being inward-looking," he said. "We don't really care about the rest of the world because we think we don't have to."

Others take a more optimistic view.

The intense media coverage of the tsunami shows that the public can be genuinely interested in foreign news, Wasserman said. "The response was not to turn off the TV," he said. "It was to watch what was going on."

Places like Phuket, Thailand, feel a lot closer now than it did 20 years ago, Adams says. But old habits die hard, and ways of seeing the world are subtly and unconsciously entrenched.

While the things closest to us loom large, he said, everything else is a vast unknown hinterland.

"Our mental maps of the world," Adams said, "may not have caught up with the reality of the world."

- Shannon Tan can be reached at or 445-4174.

[Last modified January 21, 2005, 18:37:47]

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