Does Saturation TV News Coverage Make Us Passive?

Enough already. That's the refrain. In the HuffPo comments. In the office. Over dinner tables everywhere. Make this go away. Do what you want with him, as long as we can move on. Please. Now.

One would think that we'd discussed Imus for as long we'd discussed, say, the Iraq war. The feeding frenzy only hit full speed on Monday. It's Thursday. In earth time, not that long at all. But in TV time? An eternity and them some!

I lived in England for a year. With all due respect to PBS, no day goes by where I don't yearn for BBC News (or even Sky!). My kingdom for newsreaders who know the importance of calm serious brilliance, who don't get tasered every ten seconds through their earpiece because only that could explain why they must SPEAK LIKE THIS with such an EXCITED VOICE so that YOU GET EXCITED TOO and you don't change the channel.

I do, often, because I don't like my "danger danger!" system activated all the time. During this Imus time, I've been getting most of my info on-line. Listening to NPR on-line, too. Maybe that's why I don't feel an overwhelming sense of fatigue.

But for those of you who keep flipping stations and its Imus Imus Imus, I can understand how even if you're sympathetic to the cause, fatigue takes its toll. There is a time when you simply can't take it anymore. You turn it off. You turn away. You go back to your life. And maybe in this case, that's OK. There's an army of protesters on this beat. Professionals, even.

But what if the story is one of deep national crisis, such as the Iraq war, or the post-Katrina levee failures and the ongoing aftermath? How many of you have watched an important news story and have felt helpless, like there's nothing you can possibly do, and because of this, you've turned the channel?

I would argue that saturation news coverage is not just a loud circus mess that goes away when we turn the station. Saturation coverage as we know it has the power to cultivate hopelessness. To make us passive. To keep us stuck where we are.

Saturation Coverage and Katrina Fatigue

Fatigue is a serious problem in our political culture. The most well-meaning folks get tired. I felt the dangers of fatigue most acutely after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failures.

During those first days, I was like most people stuck in front of their television sets feeling helpless and outraged (the worst sort of impotence!), not understanding how the rescue efforts could be so haphazard and ineffective.

I kept watching television. And watching. And watching. Like everyone. Trying to get information. Trying to understand.

It was hard. Anchors talking too loudly. Repeated flash. Repeated imagery. Yelling. Everything emotive dialed up to a hundred, so you only see the heartbreak, over and over, without benefit of the whole story. I felt pummeled and punched by the boom boom boom of the coverage. There was something toxic about too much of this, this unbalanced ratio of raw unadultured emotion to hard information. I had to turn it off.

But how could you turn it off? So back on it went. And I got slower. And slower. Not doing anything useful. Sinking into low-grade depression.

More emotions! Big pows to the psyche that they have not time to explain. With each minute of continuing coverage, more telegraphed code. With little context. Little history. Few facts. But more pictures!

I worried about these pictures. Pictures of screaming women, children, men. Screaming black people. All this anger and pain. Over and over. The "looters." The "you loot, we shoot" responses. Would would-be rescuers watch and only hear only warfare? Would these images activate deep-seated, and not so deep-seated fears of the mob, especially the black mob?

When you only get fed pictures, you make up most of the story. Fill in your good guy here, your bad guy there.

We needed clear information to make good decisions, to know what to demand of our government, of our fellow human beings. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were in dire distress; the last thing they needed was for the rest of America to tune them out. So many survived because Samaritans put fear to the side and took rescue and aid into their own hands.

As for myself, it wasn't until I got off the floor and volunteered at the Red Cross did I start to feel human again. That is no exaggeration. To go from passive helpless observer to active participant in the relief effort made me feel like I had some control, that I could contribute something, no matter how small.

I'm not trying to argue that if only we had different coverage, I or anyone else could have avoided feeling depressed. So much of the Katrina reality was unspeakable. The stories would take their toll regardless. But the added dollops of shocks and shoulder-rattling are debilitating to the viewer. There are shelves of scholarship on the connection of news coverage and the crippling of civil society. As a student of political communication, I have studied much on this topic. But this was the first time I felt such a physical toll on my person. That the IV drip was turning me into a zombie, as opposed to prodding me to get out there and do something. Worse, it was making me want to flip to Seinfeld instead.

The problem was there were plenty of folks in Washington ready to hand me the remote.