One of my most vivid early memories is the time my bed chased me out of my bedroom, crashing into the door frame behind me as I stumbled down the hall toward my parents’ room. The floor was shaking and I couldn’t keep from lurching into the wall. That was March 27, 1964 and part of the Pacific plate had slipped, causing the earthquake that yesterday’s Sumatra quake is being compared to (“the worst earthquake in 40 years). I was almost 1,500 miles from the epicenter of that quake and it is burned in my memory. Having lived through the Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco, too, these tectonic events are important benchmarks for me that tell a lot about the nature of media and story-telling.
Before all that, though, the tsunamis that devastated the coastlines of six countries are a terrible tragedy. Give generously to the Red Cross and other relief organizations.
What stood out for me as I watched the news after the quake and tsunami yesterday on U.S., British and Canadian television, was the U.S. media’s reliance on a few uninformative images.
For several hours after the waves struck Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia and Bangladesh, the lead news on U.S. media was a combination of the inevitable end-of-the-year retrospective reports and Reggie White’s sudden death at 43, certainly a tragic story, but by comparison to an event that would lead to the death of tens of thousands of people, pretty small stuff. Meanwhile, Canadian and British television was talking through what was known, sans pictures and relying on a few still images while describing the scope of the devastation in terms that made clear something of massive import had happened. It was serious coverage that commanded attention.
The story broke on U.S. media, taking the lead on most networks only when the first video images of people dying—a group of people being swept into the floodwaters from a walkway or retaining wall that was repeated ceaselessly—and then the story was covered poorly with a few minutes per hour repeated over the same images. The only thing that changed was the death toll, which kept rising.
Throughout the day it became clear how under-covered the Indian Ocean region really is, as the only U.S. news people on the ground seemed to be reporters or producers on vacation there rather than covering a beat. By contrast, the BBC, albeit the news organ of the former colonial power in the region, was all over the story doing a great job.
The U.S. media continues today to focus almost exclusively on images of people being swept away and waves striking the beaches, rather than the growing human crisis—disease and homelessness—that will likely not be covered at all once the initial shock of the event passes. Yet it is the global response to that massive human disaster that will ultimately define this event. We probably won’t see tht story, except in passing.
Americans are blind to much of the world. You can see it in the fact that even today as the morning news shows are relying on videophone connections to one or two newspeople in the region rather than bureaus able to cover the story effectively. Keep in mind that except for a few hundred yards of shoreline in most of the affected region (packed with people, both the poor and tourists) and in low-lying areas much wider areas, the infrastructures were not destroyed and any news organization with a sincere interest in covering it would not be crippled by the tsunamis.
The U.S. networks just aren’t there. They rely on stringers without real support to cover anything but the highlights of a disaster or regional news organizations that do not have the resources a CNN, CBS or ABC does.
Looking back at the Alaska quake, which didn’t kill even a single percentage point of the dead yesterday, but where destruction and death reached Hawaii and the coasts of Oregon and California, you can see how much media has changed. There are a few photographs available of the destruction, but little coverage. Yet, this is an event that happened in the United States.
When San Francisco was struck by a quake as the World Series began, every network went live for days. Living there, it was oppressive to watch the CNN feed from a rooftop downtown describing “fires in the Marina District” that we could see as a glow in the night sky. But the media didn’t blink and there are literally thousands of hours of coverage and tens of thousands of images. I remember being in shock from the coverage as much as the earthquake itself, finally tearing myself and my wife away when her father appeared at our front door three days later.
We are used to 24/7 coverage of spectacular murder trials or the round-the-clock coverage of a death like that of John F. Kennedy Jr. or Ronald Reagan. These events seem to be more important than the death of at least 24,000 people; based on the way the stories are covered Scott Peterson’s trial, which the networks covered non-stop in its final days, is immensely more important. We need to realize that when we program (in the scheduling sense) people’s attention that we are educating them about the world, telling them not to give much weight to a life in Chennai or Phuket (I wonder if this story would be getting the coverage it is if there hadn’t been a lot of western tourists present, mainly because they provide the networks with English-language accounts that are convenient to present on-air).
The morning shows (I watched CNN) drifted from top-of-the-hour coverage of the tsunamis to fluff pieces about the coolest Christmas gift and, again, end-of-the-year wrap-ups. The anchors segued between laughing about something trivial to their solemn faces intended to convey the gravity of the situation in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, only to get right back to laughing about the headaches endured by holiday travelers. What’s the point of the news? To make us happy or to inform us? On days like yesterday and today, the shortcomings of the institutional media are clear.
I wonder, though, how a civic journalism can be organized to respond to those shortcomings. We’ll see. Another encouraging development on that front came to my attention yesterday: Global Voices. Endless interviews with seismologists about the source of tsunamis and the apparently blameful question “Why don’t they have a warning system?” certainly isn’t the answer. An organized effort to cover the recovery from this disaster with locals working out of Internet cafes would be a great start toward hearing the stories of the people who will live with the ongoing consequences, as well as a collective blog by tourists who were there but have gone home and struggle with the memories, would be grand workshops that help turn this disaster into a triumph.
Perhaps the purpose of the civic media is precisely that, to transform observation into participation.
MORE: At about 8:15 AM this morning, the quake and tsunami became “Tsunami Disaster” on CNN. No reference to locale, a sort of sanitized subject matter that allows a lot of “can it happen here” coverage. One anchor continues to refer to the tsunami as “the storm.”
The Tsunamihelp blog is an community blogging effort of Dina Mehta and others in the region to address coverage and aide efforts.
BoingBoing has a good summary of blogs by people in the region (natives and visitors)—the self-reported coverage is getting much deeper. People with cameras are contributing thousands of their own pictures of the disaster.