Let’s talk about…The Titan submersible

Why did we invest more in the submersible than the migrant ship?

By now, we all know the sad fate of the passengers who were aboard the Titan submersible. The revelation late last week that debris belonging to the vessel was found on the seafloor has all but confirmed what had begun to look more and more likely – that is that the sub had suffered an instantaneous implosion the same day it disappeared.

But until we learned of the debris’ discovery, there was still a chance of a happy ending, of an against-all-odds twist in which all five passengers would be found safe and well. This lingering possibility – that everything could yet turn out okay for the lost passengers – is no doubt what spurred most ordinary people to keenly follow the story, hopeful of an end-of-the-survival-movie outcome – like we saw earlier this month with the four children who were found alive after surviving a plane crash and spending weeks fending for themselves in the Amazon jungle. After all, it’s only human to root for the happy ending, however slim the chance of it may be.

And in truth, it would’ve been hard to avoid following the story anyways, so non-stop and widespread was the coverage of it. The story absolutely dominated front pages and social media day after day. News outlets dedicated entire subsections of their sites to live updates – ‘Titan submersible disappearance’ a category all its own alongside the usual categories covering broader topics like ‘politics’, ‘sport’, etc. Then there was the massive international response from governments, which involved the efforts of four separate countries and reportedly cost in the realm of several million dollars.

However, as people have begun to point out, the sub’s disappearance was far from the only maritime tragedy to occur recently – nor was it even close to the most fatal. The Wednesday before the Titan story erupted, one of the biggest tragedies to ever take place on the Mediterranean Sea occurred when a boat carrying about 750 people (including 100 children) capsized on its way to Italy. At the time of writing, it has been reported that over 300 of those on board have died, in what is quite literally one of the deadliest maritime disasters to occur in Europe in decades.

And yet, this tragedy did not receive even a fraction of the media coverage, nor anywhere close to the millions in resources, that we saw go towards finding the submersible. Hundreds more people were affected, hundreds more lost their lives or were missing or were seriously injured, and yet the response, comparatively, was utterly scant. Why?

The key reason many have cited for this disparity comes down to who was on the respective vessels. The people aboard the boat that sunk in the Mediterranean were migrants, mainly Pakistani and Afghan. Meanwhile, the passengers on the Titan were billionaires and multimillionaires (to give you an idea of how well off they were, their admittance onto the sub alone cost $250k a head). Knowing this, it’s hard not to conclude class played a major role in why the responses to these tragedies were so different, and why the incident which claimed by far the most lives received a fraction of the attention the other did.

When it comes to public interest though, I do think there are other factors for why people invested less into the story of the migrant ship than that of the submersible. We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic’; it’s a lot easier to read the bios circulating about each of the Titan passengers, get a sense of who they were and empathise with them, than it is to imagine the true scale and scope of the tragedy that occurred off the coast of Italy, especially when so much less is known about who those on board were.

I think too that people were more drawn to the submersible story specifically because of its link to the Titanic. Many have commented on there being significant parallels between the fate of the Titan and that of the Titanic itself – considering some of the details to come out suggesting the sub didn’t meet safety standards in the first place, many have rushed to point out that both stories share elements like the hubris of the wealthy, cut corners around precautions coming back to bite, and humans ultimately being powerless against the natural world.

It’s a point of interest for people, these parallels, just as it was a point of interest being able to find out who the people on the sub were, and (as mentioned earlier) having to wait to find out whether the story would have a happy or tragic ending. All of this did, I think, contribute to people’s fascination with the story. But at the same time, while there are a few understandable reasons the public might be more drawn to the submersible story, it’s still hard to reconcile the disparity between the attention given to each tragedy, and specifically, the response from governments (and other agencies) and the media.

Both of these incidents are tragedies. Both impacted more than those on board the vessels; their loved ones too are affected. And I recognise I am kind of comparing tragedies, which is always a messy business, but it sort of seems like the world already has compared the two and decided which one it cares most about – and they’ve chosen to care about the known-to-be-dangerous trip the rich folk went on for recreation, not the trip made out of desperation by hundreds of less well off people.

We have room to care about both tragedies, and we have the resources too. We need to be mindful of when important stories don’t receive enough attention. And we need to try and make sure that resources and coverage aren’t attributed to just the most ‘sensational’ story of the week, but in fact distributed fairly, and where they are most needed.