NEEDHAM, Massachusetts – Thousands of Filipinos felt the reverberations of Typhoon Haiyan as it ripped through their beautiful country in November 2013. Classified as a Category 5-equivalent super typhoon, Haiyan would leave 6,300 Filipinos dead and thousands of others missing.
Catastrophes such as this are often the breaking point that calls the media to impoverished countries that would otherwise be deemed insignificant. It is often difficult for the media to portray those swept up in natural disasters as anything other than victims. Consequently, people in developed countries express their grief via social media, sending their condolences to faraway nations that would not normally register in their thoughts much less their hearts.
The media does this only in part because crisis reporting is necessary. As Jon Stewart explained to Chris Wallace, the media is “sensationalist and somewhat lazy […] 24-hour news networks are built for one thing, and that’s [disasters like] 9/11,” Stewart continued. He said that in the absence of a Level 1 crisis, major news stations are “not going to say ‘there’s nothing urgent or important…happening today, so we are going to…bring forth more conflict and sensationalism’” in order to keep the viewer’s attention.
While natural disasters certainly qualify as breaking news, the “sensationalist and somewhat lazy” tactics of major news stations ensure that many viewers tune them out. Why?
Because every time the news covers a natural disaster, they tell the same story.
They do this by following the same formula. News producers combine dramatic camera shots, histrionic narration, quotes from eyewitnesses and the authorities’ latest statements in order to tell a story. In that sense, it is not so much reporting that the reporters do so much as narration.
Unfortunately, the people most likely to hear the news reports and tune them out due to emotional exhaustion are the ones most capable of helping. Indeed, there is only so much sensationalism the human brain can tolerate before it shuts off and tunes out. As a result, the countries that first-world citizens care most about, from a strategic perspective, are least likely to be the ones most in need of that care.
But for all of that collective laziness, life goes on. Heroes emerge from a narration of victimhood, and the public wakes up a little bit. Ken Belson of the New York Times wrote of the elderly heroes of Japan, who volunteered to clean up radioactive waste following the destruction of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. They did this knowing that the life expectancy of radioactive poisoning averaged 30 to 40 years.
It is precisely this type of quiet hero that is most necessary in times of crises. The heroism of these men and women is effective because they are fully aware of what kind of danger they’re exposing themselves to. Their decision to help is born of a genuine desire to help their countrymen, making it an act of pure self-sacrifice.
As for future catastrophes, it is easy to predictive the cycle of reactivity. Once the initial shock dies down, bystanders will fall into one of three camps: those who go back to their daily lives without another written or spoken word, those who donate money and do nothing more and those that attempt to ameliorate the suffering of the most devastated victims. Into which of the three will the media fall?
– Leah Zazofsky