Gittins on Disaster Reporting

The discussion on the reporting of Disasters goes on, here on my post, and elsewhere. Ross Gittins, the SMH’s chief economic reporter, has an interesting piece on it from an insider’s perspective. It’s worth a read. I’ll admit I’ve played devil’s advocate a little in discussions on my post. I think there’s a need to cover disasters and coverage can be helpful to highlight the plight of people suffering as a result of the event. And I think the bushfires are a big deal. The biggest disaster we’ve had to confront on our soil. I stand by those comments. But I also agree with Stuss and Amy that the coverage has gone too far and for too long.

Here’s Gittins’ thesis:

“But media coverage of this one’s gone way over the top. And it’s served to strengthen my suspicion that the community’s reaction to natural disasters is exploitative, voyeuristic, unfair, self-gratifying and even pathological.”

Here are some gems from Gittins thoughtful piece:

On why we watch

“Our emotion-driven caring is highly selective. People with problems get wonderful treatment provided their problems make good TV footage and for the 15 minutes they’re in the media spotlight. People with chronic (old-hat), unphotogenic problems get ignored.”

“Modern city life leaves us with weaker connections to our extended families and neighbours, so whereas once we could let our emotions loose on the misadventures of people we knew, now we need the mass media to provide our emotional exercise.”

On why they broadcast

“Our preoccupation lasts a week or two before the media senses our waning interest and turns away, waiting for the next natural disaster to get excited about.”

“But don’t blame it all on the media. They do what they do because they know it’s what their audience wants.”

“They want the media to give their feelings of sympathy, sorrow and grief a good workout.”

On why we give

“But I also suspect that feeling sympathy for the victims of disasters and rushing to make donations is intended to make us feel good about ourselves.”

“Why does ABC Classic FM carry ads “urging” its listeners to donate? Because management wants its listeners to think well of the station. Why does a bank take out full-page ads announcing all the concessions it’s prepared to make to its affected customers? Because it wants to improve its battered image. I wonder whether the cost of those concessions will come out of the bank’s profits or be spread between its other customers.”

On politics

“Politicians want to be wherever the TV cameras are trained on something exciting. They want to be seen as always on the job, demonstrating their humanity by expressing their profound sympathy for the victims and acting like generals who lead from the front.”

“Like so many things, natural disasters advantage the political incumbents over their opposition. But politicians also act out of fear – fear of the criticism they’d attract from know-all talkback jockeys should they fail visit the scene, or should government agencies be judged to have bungled their response to the tragedy.”

On the shelf life of the coverage

The reason I’m cynical is that I know how fleeting all the professed concern is. I hate things that are fashionable, where everyone has the same opinion and does the same thing at the same time.

But like all fashions, it never lasts. Our preoccupation lasts a week or two before the media senses our waning interest and turns away, waiting for the next natural disaster to get excited about.