If you were stationed at the Tham Luang caves in the far north of Thailand for a week, as I was, you’d have thought the operation to rescue 12 boys and a football coach trapped underground for more than two weeks was the only thing that mattered in the world.
Inundated caves. Jagged rock. Monsoon rains. Emaciated children. Race against time. Eyes of the world. Fate of the boys. Death-defying mission. Precarious escape. Helicopter evacuation. Elon Musk. Buddhist monks. Cave boys. Manchester United. World Cup seats. Navy Seal dies. Prime minister visits. Heroes – many, many heroes, plus a new tourist attraction.
It was a whirlwind of well-worn words and phrases as hundreds of reporters tussled for something unique that might impress their overlords – editors sitting at desks far away.
For plenty, truth and sensitivity went out the window, casualties of the chase. Rumours almost evolved into facts, then melted back into nothingness as the next big “could be” came along.
When a helicopter buzzed over the media pit late on Day 2 of the rescue, reporters scrambled. “Fifth boy free!” they cried. Cameras fired up, presenters wiped their brows, tweeters tweeted and old-fashioned hacks, myself included, began filling in details on story templates they’d prepared.
The appearance of a helicopter on Day 1 meant a boy had been spirited to safety. So today’s helicopter meant that too, right? But what if this helicopter was on a different mission? What if a rescue diver had died?
Two days after the emaciated boys emerged, a friend messaged asking where I was. When I told him I was still in Mae Sai, he responded with typical cheek, but only half kidding: “They are all out now. You lot can go home.”
When I finally made it back to Phnom Penh, I climbed the stairs to an old haunt where I knew I’d find a familiar face – someone to ground me after a week on a story high. When I told an old friend where I’d just come from (the most important place in the world), he, too, was unimpressed.
“Oh, that. Jesus, is it over? It’s been driving me mad for weeks. Every time I turn on the television or look at a newspaper…” His words trailed off, his eyes red with World Cup all-nighters that might’ve been as much to blame for his mood as the endless saga of the Cave Boys. “They’re all out safe days ago, right? How much more detail do we need?”
I had already written a couple of stories about the ethics of staking out a hospital, of haranguing desperate families and of distracting divers as the rescue mission balanced on a knife’s edge.
But this weary friend’s dressing down took my mind to another questionable element of the coverage given to the Cave Boys: the cost. Not just the financial cost, but the opportunity-cost, as well.
How many stories had gone untold as the world’s media gathered in Mae Sai and stood side-by-side getting spoon-fed the same quotes, the same information, at the same press conferences, where they’d all capture almost identical photos and video?
Why is round-the-clock coverage of the rescue so important – especially when experts have already revealed a four-hour window when the boys are likely to emerge? And why does every outlet have to be on the story?
I can only guess that, like just about everything in our world, the answer is money.
Streaming and piracy have stolen the market for human eyes and brains seeking to be entertained by a screen, and events like the Tham Luang cave rescue give television networks a chance to win back some of their lost pie.
Building the suspense with ongoing coverage is vital to keeping the viewer – and thereby advertisers – engaged.
So TV bosses spent small fortunes to fly in production teams and their gear from around the world. They rented hotel rooms, vans, drivers, local producers, fixers, translators, security. When fatigue became an issue, they flew in a new team to rotate the first one out.
The outlay for some would run easily into the tens of thousands. But they couldn’t miss the story.
For newspapers, putting a reporter at the scene is an investment in legitimacy, allowing stories to start with the dateline – “Mae Sai, THAILAND” – which would in theory lead to more people paying to read.
And for online-only outlets, a reporter on the scene equals a live blog, which equals clicks and hits that translate directly into advertising dollars.
It’s all a bit cart before horse.
Media as a business is old news, sure. But being inside the machine reporting what might, if you subtract Trump, turn out to be the biggest news story of the year spoke to that idea like never before.
The world hung on the fate of 13 young souls for three weeks. But during that same time, how many boys drowned in the Mediterranean, were killed in Yemen or starved to death in South Sudan? Where was the wall-to-wall coverage on those stories? What made the story of the Cave Boys so special?
I suppose it all comes down to dollars. Reporters chase stories for editors who chase dollars for their bosses. Those other stories of other horrors from around the world have largely run their course for now, at least until events there strike a new level of horror. Then the world might be ready to tune back in.