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New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., rear, in red, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
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By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • May 23, 2024

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Get Pitt and Oakland news in your inbox, three times a week.

New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., rear, in red, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
Column | Former Villanova fanatic watches “Nova Knicks” take down Sixers in NBA Playoffs
By Aidan Kasner, Sports Editor • May 23, 2024
Opinion | Do not arrest peaceful protesters
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • May 23, 2024

Opinion | It wasn’t five people lost at sea, it was more than six hundred

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Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The Atlantic Ocean.

Nothing brings people together quite like the opportunity to focus on the foolishness of the wealthy and the chance to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the desperate. 

On June 18, a submersible vessel, the Titan — crucially, not a submarine — took five passengers on a deep-sea descent off the coast of Newfoundland. Their goal was to explore the ruins of the Titanic, a trip that the company, OceanGate, has made multiple times over the past three years, this time for the price of $250,000 a head. 

An hour and forty-five minutes into the trip, OceanGate lost connection with the Titan, provoking a search for the vessel. Almost instantly, the story gained huge traction in the media. The passengers’ 40 remaining hours of oxygen seemed to be audibly ticking away as various theories poured in from deep sea experts, Twitter spectators, engineers and Titanic (1999) director James Cameron.

The story was impossible to avoid — the multiple, well-documented safety concerns of the vessel, the shock at the discovery that a video game controller steered it, the step-son of one of the passenger’s attempt to use this as a bid for attention at a Blink-182 concert, the revelation of his multiple instances of sexually harassing women, the fact that the CEO — one of the passengers — was a relative of former Titanic passengers and the inevitable King Princess connection to that. 

There were too many flashy details — too many egregious, obvious mistakes. The kind of story that sells papers and boosts ratings, the kind of story that you can’t look away from in case you miss another sordid detail, another confirmation of how preventable this disaster was. 

When the story broke, more than 600 passengers on a refugee ship on the coast of Greece had been missing for four days. The story, already given little attention, slipped further from mainstream news cycles. What were the lives of hundreds of refugees when there were five billionaires at stake? Why focus on the frequent tragedy of “migration gone wrong,” as it were, when we could dissect this cinematic disappearance? 

The difference in media coverage of these two catastrophes reveals that much of mainstream reporting aims only to entertain readers and audiences, requiring a constant resizing of the pool of subjects to focus on. 

Refugees don’t come on submersibles designed to look at mass graves. They don’t have, as far as any outlet knows, rich family members that will embarrass themselves on Twitter. Their motivations for taking to the sea aren’t scandalous. They’re so featureless to the media, so indistinguishable from one another, from other refugees who die in awful conditions, that you can practically hear the overlapping justifications for silence that must have been made in the pitch meetings. 

Comparing these two stories might seem irrelevant, given the difference in the variables at play. But there’s a reason that some people cannot help but compare the two — because this isn’t just a case of two sea-related tragedies vying for coverage, it’s one of the more blatant examples of both the commercialization of reporting and the dehumanization of refugees that never lets up, not even after death. 

The reporting on the Titan didn’t just reveal the fact that most audiences respond positively to sensationalized journalism — it made it possible for the lives of more than 600 victims and 104 survivors to remain largely ignored, relegated to anonymity. 

It’s too easy to say that the focus was normal for a shocking story. Because, really, is there anything truly shocking about the idleness of the rich combined with their delusions of grandeur resulting in disastrous consequences? Have we not heard this story several times before? The Greek myth of Tantalus comes to mind. So does the very real possibility of a poorly designed spaceship of billionaires coming to a similar end in the near future. 

It’s simplistic to pretend that the coverage stems from sympathy for the passengers on the basis of the ‘preventability’ of their deaths. If that’s the case, then where is the condemnation of the inaction and recklessness that caused the capsizing of the refugee ship? If the coverage is really rooted in an interest in avoidable tragedies, why is the fact that the ship sank because the Greek coast guard destabilized it, then watched it sink over a period of thirteen hours, all before denying any involvement, not of more significance? 

The passengers of the Titan could realistically be presumed dead the second OceanGate communicated with the Coast Guard, and yet, their disappearance warranted days of searching. The Greek authorities watched a boat carrying 750 people sink and did the bare minimum — if that — to try and save some of the victims of their actions. 

It’s obvious why this happens the way it does — people who have a quarter of a million dollars to throw away matter to news outlets and federal agencies — people fleeing countries destabilized by neoliberal intervention and US and UK-backed military occupation do not. Rich people in toy submarines sink because they are at the mercy of the elements, and refugees sink because they are at the mercy of European states that view them as inhuman, as public waste and as a threat and because those states know that both their actions or their inaction will be justified by their allies

While I can understand the impulse to mourn any life, especially those lost horrifically, the fact that people defend the exclusiveness of the coverage on the basis of the tragic factor, often citing the 19-year-old boy on board, is not something easy for me to stomach. I wonder how this publicly professed grief, so intensely and sincerely felt for people with more wealth than most of us can even conceive of, can so determinedly avoid the approximately 100 children on board the capsized ship

Watching the coverage of these two events unfold, it’s impossible to not conclude that many audiences do not want to be informed in the slightest. They want to be stirred and to hear every detail of every case that does not imply a larger systemic issue. They want dramatic isolated incidents that they can imagine as conspiracy films and nothing at all to do with any story that signals a deep, ugly apathy at the core of their states or those they admire, particularly not if it has claimed lives. 

We do not yet have the power to tax the rich enough that they stop buying tickets to death traps, nor do we have the ability to force Europe to reckon with and atone for its violent racism toward migrants, but if we do not gain a significant increase in media literacy and criticism — something which is well within the grasp of the average person — we’ll never even get the chance to try. 

Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger writes about politics and international and domestic social movements. Write to her at [email protected]

About the Contributor
Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger, Senior Staff Columnist
Sofia Uriagereka is a senior majoring in Anthropology. She writes primarily about politics, both domestic and international.