12 January 2005

Tsunami - why the media frenzy?

There were several ways in which responses by the media to the major tsunami tragedy were questionable. Cybershrink analyses the coverage of this disaster.

There were several ways in which responses by the media to the major tsunami tragedy were questionable. Most notable was the enormous over-reaction of so many of the mass media. Cybershrink analyses the coverage of this disaster.

The 24-hour TV news channels went berserk, especially Sky News, who seem to have officially decided for at least 10 days afterwards, that absolutely nothing else of the remotest importance happened anywhere else on earth. Irresponsibly, they covered almost nothing else, and the coverage of the tsunami was incessant, mawkish and ghoulish. The message to the rest of the world was - who cares about you? Nearly 200 people died in a nightclub fire in South America, and the TV news channels almost totally ignored it. They didn't count.

Not too long ago, matters relating to death and grief were seldom covered by the mass media. Until recently, TV stations in the UK, Canada and South Africa were nervous about airing programmes on these topics, and expected complaints when they did.

Pendulum has swung too far the other way
But the pendulum has swung too far the other way. With creepy glee the cameras hunted for the grieving, dwelling on those too stunned or timid to tell them to buzz off. And they dwelled too often and too lingeringly on the piles of corpses. And with far too little thought for the effect not only on the average viewer, but on survivors and on the many people who had a loved one lost or missing in the region. None of this brought comfort to the afflicted, but could have been, and often was, deeply disturbing to viewers with a real emotional connection to the tragedy.

The preening and posturing politicians clogged up the aid system and interfered with the transport of much-needed help to those in need. Many of them were nothing more than trauma tourists. Their presence was carefully calculated to benefit only themselves politically. The beaches were also thick with debris and reporters, all repeatedly telling us what we already knew all too well. Was I the only one struck also by the number of rather smug "volunteers", who seemed to spend more time chatting to the media than actually going out and providing the help the survivors needed?

The rest of the world is still out there
It was important to inform the world about what had happened, but was it really necessary to give 24-hour coverage of each scrap of litter? Few of the reporters were noted for the depth of their spontaneous utterances and they were required to keep speaking about the unspeakable. So, day after day, they kept telling us that the scale of the disaster was immense, and that many people had been killed. World War Two received less avid and constant coverage - even during that massive conflict, they remembered there was a time for entertainment, and for attending to all else that mattered in the world as well.

Indeed, there was a macabre sense of scorekeeping, like a deadly cricket match, with new totals of dead and missing, posted at frequent intervals. And still the monotonous posse of prissy reporters, each with their own field of destruction, continued to rattle on. The 24/7 news channels are still so immature, and have yet to learn that just because their technology enables them to show things, this doesn't mean that everything that can be shown, or should be shown. Why show a whole press conference from beginning to end, simply because they are able to, even if not a word of real interest is uttered?

Huge pledges of help – but will they deliver?
We were obviously supposed to be impressed by the scale of the generosity, at least in pledges made, of a number of countries, almost boastful in their largesse. Some of us remembered, wryly, that in all previous major tragedies, billions of dollars in aid were pledged, but far less was ever actually delivered to those in need. Notice how the size of the donations promised generally was in proportion to the geo-political and strategic interests of each donor country in the affected region. America, keen to get a military base around the Moluccan Straights, was anxious that everyone should know about their generosity, and that the TV should prominently feature their military forces and helicopters busy being helpful. Politicians love being generous with other people's money - our money, rather than with their own.

The disaster was in some ways uniquely awful both in scale and in the number of nations who were affected directly or indirectly. We were right to be appalled, and concerned, and it's right to help, as we can, by donations to the real major charities and agencies, and not to fly-by-night and unknown charities that suddenly blossomed.

Africa's problems are no less severe
But nobody seemed to get this matter into perspective. With all the truly needy people here in South Africa, whether those dealing with HIV/Aids, or less fashionable but no less needy groups like the victims of crime, does it really make sense for the South African public and government to donate millions to Asia, and not to our own needy? How truly ridiculous this race to appear charitable has become was demonstrated when Zimbabwe, where so many ordinary people starve, and which is so desperately short of foreign exchange, insisted that it would send millions of dollars to Asia.

The South African media tended to be more responsible, and kept the topic more in perspective, although the SABC telethon was as dubious as it was profitable. It drained funds from people in need in South Africa, indeed in Africa, and sent them to an area, which is already being more generously funded and helped than any other previous victims of disaster. Yes, it is natural for us to feel sympathetic and generous when others are in trouble - but does this need to be at the virtual exclusion of sympathy for those closer to us and just as needy?

Natural disaster vs. self-inflicted woes
Some commentators have asserted that there is racism inherent in the great outpouring of cash and sympathy for the disaster in Asia, while Africa does not attract similarly vast funding. There are also likely to be some non-racial reasons for this. Over the decades, very large sums of aid have indeed poured into Africa at various times, and there seems to be remarkably little to show for it. So donors may be wary of prior experiences of corruption and waste. Asian countries seem to have received less aid overall, but may be seen to have made better use of it. And this was a natural disaster, whereas so many of Africa's woes seem self-inflicted in the sense of relating to prolonged warfare and mismanagement, which are both avoidable woes.

Another way in which an unwholesome degree of competitiveness has grown, which at times borders on the hysterical, lies in the ways that charities and major relief agencies describe the disaster. They speak solely in superlatives, as if smaller tragedies would be inevitably ignored. Amplified and transmitted by the media, the message is often accusatory and shrill, as if the disaster were somehow our fault. Is it our fault that tiny villages, inaccessible since time began, are not inaccessible to rapid delivery of aid?

"Send money now – and make it snappy"
The line taken is not that something awful has happened and we may very well want to help, but that it's our duty to help, and to get a move on and hurry up with the payments. We get scolded because the relief isn't fast enough. It's somehow our fault that the local governments have never provided adequately for all of their own people, in normal times, let alone in disaster.

Note the lip-licking eagerness with which the relief agencies announce yet another humanitarian disaster, which, according to them, is in the offing. Interestingly, most of the humanitarian disasters which get solemnly announced, don't actually happen.

Millions did not die in the Afghan winter after the last Afghan War, for instance, though for months we were assured that this was inevitable. Somehow, ordinary miseries seem inadequate to satisfy the needs of disaster junkies. Only a truly operatic scale of awfulness makes them feel wanted. And so it is with this awful situation.

Media thrives on potential disasters
As if the material and human destruction were not entirely enough to occupy all possible relief workers, we were repeatedly told that and equal number or more, would surely die of typhoid and cholera. Certainly, epidemics can and often do follow such natural disasters, especially where such diseases are already rampant, and community care needs to take that into account. But if there was no cholera in a region before the wave, it's not likely to arise spontaneously right afterwards.

And the child abuse mavens seemed to feel left out of the drama, and announced that the orphan children of the tsunami were bound to be abducted by armies of wily paedophiles, or Western parents desperate to adopt a child. In at least one case there was much alarm about a child who was merely receiving kindly care from a nice person, and we have yet to see a documented specific case of such an unpleasant event actually having happened. Of course it might, and it would be wise for the local authorities to be wary of this possibility, but we did not need to be hectored about it, and there is no need to arrange for an airlift of social workers into the region just yet. (Professor M.A. Simpson)


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