Commentary: Kids suffer worldwide. So, why are the Thai boys special?

Even while the world watches with attention and interest as the Thai soccer team is rescued from a cave, many people wonder why a similar focus is not placed on other suffering children in refugee camps and war zones around the world. It may feel as if the media and public ignore the plight of millions of children to focus on the Thai story.

In this country, in the Middle East, in Africa, it’s not hard to find terrible stories of abused, suffering, and neglected refugee children. What’s the difference? Why do we follow the story of the Thai soccer team — but not stories coming out of refugee camps and wars?

As a professor of persuasion and communication, I have observed with some interest the Thai cave rescue and can offer one answer. It is important to pay attention to rhetoric, to the dimensions of storytelling that make the Thai story different from others. A rhetorical analysis not only explains what is unique about the Thai story but sheds light on how the media and persuasion work.

Related: Who are the boys, their coach; timeline of the rescue.

• The Thai story is not politically charged, nor risky, as would be a story about Syrian kids trying to get into Austria, or Central Americans trying to get into the U.S. Human interest stories are more likely to get attention when we are not distracted by politics. In the U. S., people on the left and right, and President Trump, have all united in expressing concern.

• The Thai event is neatly bound in time and space and thus manageable from a story point of view — and it has been moving toward a definite conclusion — good or bad — unlike the endless grief of refugees elsewhere. A nice, clear story makes good media coverage — and that’s what we have here.

• There is international feel-good story material from the start, as people from all over the world gather round to help. In a sense, a little U.N. is cooperating outside that cave. In a world that seems to be constantly at odds with itself, to see so many nations contribute help is heartening.

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• It appeals to a sense of technological creativity and MacGyverosity, which is attractive in our day and age. We are often reminded that the situation is unique, and that solutions must be devised as they go along. Even Elon Musk has gotten into the act, instructing his engineers to build a boy sized submarine.

• The Thai story features very specific examples of highly photogenic kids, which appeals much more than any description of mass suffering. You can talk all you want to about children suffering on this and that border; that can’t compete with photos of 12 actual boys. The drama is run through with specifics that provide points of identification: the boys want fried chicken; they want fried rice with basil; they want teachers to take it easy on them with the homework; they have specific messages for their families.

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Yes, I wish we could and would focus on the wider and larger issues of all these refugee children. But there are reasons rooted in principles of rhetoric, persuasion, and narrative that account for why the Thai boys dominate the news. And the reasons why tell us about what attracts our attention and interest in general: in world events, in politics, in local news.

Brummett is the Charles Sapp Centennial Professor in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas.

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