Western media response would be very different if the Ohio disaster occurred in China
Published: Feb 15, 2023 09:46 PM
Illustration: Xia Qing/Global Times

Illustration: Xia Qing/Global Times

On February 3, a train in the US town of East Palestine in Ohio carrying chemicals derailed and exploded. The smoke cloud was huge and could be seen for miles. The environmental damage caused by the spill has been extensive, polluting the wider Ohio River basin area and killing thousands of fish and farm animals. Despite this, authorities have been quite relaxed about its outcome, and insisted it is "safe" for residents to return home. Government agencies, like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have been outright dismissive at best. 

Although US national media outlets have reported on the incident, notably absent from such reports have been the widespread alarm and panic that have dictated the tone of stories over the so-called "spy balloon" and unidentified objects over the past few days. Despite the incident in Ohio being an environmental disaster, it certainly hasn't been depicted or approached like one.

But had such an event occurred in China, would the US mainstream media's response been the same? Would coverage have been moderate and calm, and would attempts to play it down or retain calm been accepted by major US news outlets? The answer is no. Instead, the story would have received wall-to-wall international coverage for the space of weeks which would seek to whip up paranoia, suspicion, fear, resentment, anger and score political points against the Chinese government, who would be branded as culpable.

Western media reporting of China is subject to surreal levels of sensationalism, outright bias and political agenda pushing. In particular, every small thing which can be interpreted as a mistake, a sign of things going wrong, or an opportunity to attack or undermine the government, is whipped up wholesale and approached by the Western media with the worst possible conclusions, with no objective balance or concern for the other side of the story. In conclusion, no matter what the event is, it is always China's leadership and political system which are ultimately to blame.

The way the Western media presented China's response to the COVID outbreak, from day one, offers a case study into how the Western media and governments would respond had such a chemical disaster occurred in China. First of all, the spill would be given wall-to-wall coverage by Western media outlets, it wouldn't be muted, but it would be expressed as were the first cases in Wuhan, as a total disaster which is caused by some aspect of inferiority in China's governance system. The logic that such things "could not happen here" would be applied.

Next, the coverage would subsequently accuse China of waging a "cover up." While US government agencies such as EPA can downplay the chemical spill without any scrutiny, the Western mainstream media would actively accuse China of suppressing and downplaying information. China would be accused of "hiding the true extent" in terms of environmental damage and death tolls, and would cite a number of unfounded rumors, gossip and speculation as "evidence" of this. To match this, government bodies such as the US State Department would also publicly call for investigations, and use phrases such as "China lacks transparency."

Following that, the US, both in terms of media and officials, would then use the disaster to try and undermine China's relationships with other countries. They would claim that the impact has affected other countries too, in a similar way they weaponized COVID, and of course the weather balloons. These narratives would also be matched by many op-eds appearing in Western media outlets which would directly attack and implicate China's political system to blame, making arguments which of course are ideological.

However, because this happened in the US, one can see that the media narrative is very different. There is no induced mass panic, there is no call for accountability and no political attacks drawn from it, although we should be open to the fact it may become a partisan line of attack if the aftermath continues to escalate. Likewise, in a similar vain to COVID, while the media attacked China relentlessly across every stage of the pandemic, seemingly there was little interest in the 1 million plus death toll brought about by government negligence in the US. 

This creates an irony that while the US calls for accountability, democracy and freedom in China, they have little appetite in taking the concerns of their own people seriously, this raises in question the actual effectiveness and nature of American democracy, whereby the government can harm its own people with absolute impunity. There is one rule for the US, and another for China.

The author is a political and historical relations analyst. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn