Advice For Journalists: Disaster Preparedness Edition

Here's a reminder to reporters on the teevee: the terrible disaster that happened isn't happening to you, okay?

Slate's Katherine Goldstein passes along a June 2006 gem from Jack Shafer that's of timely mention today (given last night's earthquake in Japan), in which Shafer "lamented that cliché-laden news coverage obscured real suffering." For Shafer, the urtext on disaster cliche is Alexander Cockburn's 1973 piece "Death Rampant! Readers Rejoice!" Sadly, this piece is unavailable online, but Shafer excerpts the critical portion in his piece:

Quick comparisons with other earthquakes. Secondly, where is it? Usually in "remote Eastern Turkey" or in the "arid center of Iran." But with luck it will have occurred in marginally more accessible Latin or Central America. Good chance for post facto description. Most of the buildings destroyed; others leaning at crazy angles. Constant flood of refugees. People clawing at rubble. Survivors crawling, blinking into the light of day. Preliminary tremors, then "for six seconds the earth shook." Make sure to get picture of one building standing (usually a church in Roman Catholic countries or a mosque in Muslim ones.) Get interviews from American survivors. Animadvert on general danger of earthquakes, particularly in San Francisco area. Most important of all: get casualty figures and escalate them each day. Remind people that 200,000 people died in the Lisbon earthquake.

Shafer points out that the hype and attention given to disasters is overpowering, when compared to disasters that take time to unfold, but are just as deadly:

In Cockburn's manual, slow-moving killers such as famine, disease, tribal genocide, or automotive holocaust (approximate 42,000 killed a year in the U.S.) rarely qualify for disaster coverage because quickness of death is the genre's distinguishing characteristic. Hell today, gone tomorrow, in other words--or at least gone from sight.

This is exacerbated in televised coverage, where an earthquake or a hurricane is just more likely to seamlessly mesh with the cliched way all news reporting is constructed.

You just can't plug-and-play coverage of a famine or a genocide into that template as readily as you can an earthquake. And you can't cover a famine or a genocide with as much relish! The fast disaster allows reporters to do many things -- simulate gravitas, inject themselves into the aftermath, rend garments, muse on the fragile nature of human life. What they get to avoid, largely, is blame. Press coverage can't stop a hurricane. But by the time you're months into a famine or Shafer's aforementioned "automotive holocaust," the question can credibly be raised -- couldn't this tragedy have been averted if you had covered it?

Beyond the cliches, you should also watch for those occasions where reporters start to fantasize about what it may have been like to experience the disaster, or make statements that are clearly based on what they've learned from disaster movies. Here's Choire Sicha in June of 2009, reacting to coverage of the Air France Flight 447 disaster:

The newspapers are doing a terrible, horrible job with Air France Flight 447. The most hilarious passage yet comes from today's New York Post: "Perhaps no one will ever know how passengers reacted in those fatal 14 minutes-whether they screamed, grabbed for the oxygen masks or sat in silent prayer." Or maybe they had a sing-a-long to Beatles songs! Or maybe they all joined in covens to worship Satan! Ludicrous. But the lunacy is everywhere. From Reuters: "extreme turbulence or decompression during stormy weather might have caused the disaster." Yes, or not!

Decompression, by the way, isn't like it is in the movies, with the snakes getting sucked out of the planes. And turbulence doesn't destroy airplanes.

And here's a reminder to reporters on the teevee: the terrible disaster that happened isn't happening to you, okay? So there's no need to be frantic or angry about anything! Just calm yourself down and let the nice scientists explain things to you.

Finally, where can the media go from here, once the feeding frenzy over the earthquake in Japan has ended? Well, as it turns out, I know of two gigantic disasters that are happening right here in America. They are known as "the unemployment crisis" and "the foreclosure crisis" and they are very similar to a tsunami in many ways, except that they happen slowly, to poor people.

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