The death toll numbers game

When the first earthquake hit Haiti the evening of January 12, my eyes were glued to Google News, scanning every article as it was picked up by Google’s search spiders and pushed into the feed. When I heard the first description of where the epicenter of the quake hit — 15 miles southwest of Port-Au-Prince — I knew the population in that area would be decimated. Driving through there with my dad this summer, I would stare out the window marveling at the dense concentration of people and wondering what life was like for them.

So I was rather shocked when I heard the first death toll estimate on Tuesday evening: Dozens Feared Dead As Buildings Collapse. Either my conception of a 7.0 earthquake was distorted by Hollywood, or that was a sorely conservative estimate.

Over the next 24 hours, the death toll estimate incrementally increased as it was reported by various publications:

Hundreds Feared Dead in Haiti Earthquake (ABC News)

Haiti Earthquake: Thousands Feared Dead (CBS News)

Then Haiti’s consul general to the U.N., Felix Augustin, threw out the 100,000 estimate, while at the same time President Druval was citing other estimates between 30,000 and 50,000 and told CNN “It’s too early to give a number.” Now the estimate wavers between the tangible yet likely conservative 200,000 dead and the more elusive “hundreds of thousands“.

It is clear that we will never know how many people died in the Haitian earthquakes. Between the way that bodies had to be disposed of in mass graves without documentation, the most anyone can do is to interview people months from now and try to make a list of all the people who were never seen again by their families.

But what we can know, and need to know now, is how many people are currently dying in Haiti. How many people are still trapped beneath the rubble, clinging to life? How many people have escaped immediate harm and are now in need of water and food, but unable to access these resources due to infrastructure collapse from the Earthquake?

Most importantly, how many people are currently in the care of the medical teams but are dead and dying because planes full of medical supplies are being diverted from the Port-au-Prince airport, or because the supplies that have been delivered are just sitting there instead of being delivered to the make-shift hospitals and triage centers where they can be used?

According to the news media as of today, that number is “at least five”. And accurate though that may be, it downplays the severity of the situation.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, we have seen nothing but conservative estimates from reporters. I understand the desire of the media to stick to tradition and only report facts that are confirmed by primary sources, but when their ability to get those facts is limited by geographical, technological, and other constraints, some other kind of estimation and prediction is in order. Otherwise, the picture that gets painted is one that is misleading. Whether it is out of journalistic precautiousness or laziness that reliable estimates are not being formed and delivered to the public, nothing can justify downplaying the urgency of the situation.

Instead of waiting for some political figure to pull a number out of his ass to publish it, why don’t journalists on the ground in Haiti use their own logic and abilities to get information and assemble their own stats. Nobody is going to die from an educated overestimate, but several people might die from the status quo.

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3 thoughts on “The death toll numbers game

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