It’s Easy for Leaders to Make Promises After Disasters. But What Happens Next?

Of all the tragedies, wars, natural disasters and terrorist attacks we’ve reported on over the years, the one that even now, as I think of it, makes my knees go weak is the sinking of the Sewol ferry in South Korea. More than 300 people died that day in 2014, and most of them were high school students.

If you recall, the students took cellphone videos, first laughing as the ship listed to one side and then panicking as they realized they were going to die.

“This looks like the end,” one boy shouted into a smartphone, before another cut in: “Mom, Dad, I love you.”

Maybe it’s because I am a parent, but I can’t seem to shake it off.

Today, we are revisiting the Sewol disaster as part of our new series, Promises Made. The idea is to pause a beat or two amid the onslaught of daily news and look back at stories that once dominated the headlines, then ask a very simple question:

Did those in power do what they said they would do to make sure this never happens again?

[Find out whether South Korea kept its promises after the Sewol ferry sank.]

The question is simple — the answers generally far less so.

Promises made in the heat of the moment are easy. But promises kept? As attention fades (and, yes, the news media bears some responsibility here) commitment often does, too.

Here at The Times, we like to think about what we do as mission-driven journalism. Part of that mission is holding the powerful to account, and our hope is that Promises Made will evolve into a meaningful part of that.

Think about the string of international events we have covered in recent months: The New Zealand terrorist attacks. The Notre-Dame fire. The Sri Lanka terrorist attacks. The two Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. The dam burst in Brazil.

In each and every case, officials stood up and said things would change. And events seemed to bear that out. There were arrests after the attacks. There were pledges to rebuild in Paris. Boeing was forced to ground its entire fleet of 737 Max 8 jets. Then the news cycle moved ahead, and attention turned where it usually does: to the next thing.

But not for everybody. Not for the people directly affected by disaster. And not for those counting on the people in power to help keep them safe. And so we decided we would go back to earlier headline-grabbing events to see if words were followed with action.

I asked Bryant Rousseau, the primary editor on the Promises Made series, to tell us how he thinks about it. This is what he wrote:

“When their people are scared or outraged or suffering or at risk of dying in great numbers, governments around the world make promises. They promise that preventable accidents will never happen again. They promise to rebuild after wars and disasters. Laws will be changed, money will be spent and life will be made better. Promise.

“The Times’s project aims to hold governments accountable to their vows. When promises have been kept, we’ll give credit. But we’ll call out governments and businesses that have failed to fulfill their promises and demand to know why, and what’s being done now to meet them. Promise.”

So far we have revisited the peace treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels, and the Grenfell Tower fire in London, which left 72 dead.

In Colombia, we found a peace deal in trouble, with thousands of fighters having picked up arms again and hundreds killed since the treaty was signed. In London, we found that thousands of people are still living in firetraps because the government has been slow to remove the flammable cladding that caused Grenfell to burn like a torch. I invite you to take a look at those pieces if you haven’t already.

Today, we look at Sewol.

After the ferry went down, we spent weeks looking into what had gone wrong. We came away with the conclusion that blame lay with greed, corruption and a culture of doing business that seems to prioritize profit over human life.

The government said it would respond with strong regulations. Have they measured up? Take a look at our story and see.

Please let us know what you think. And don’t hesitate to tell us in the comments if there is an international event you would like us to follow up on.

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