CNA profiteering from Japan earthquake? Nothing new there

Posted on 11 March 2011

The letter from the marketing department may be insensitive, but it reveals the dark side of the media that has been around forever, says Terence Lee.

Vehicles ready for shipping being carried by a tsunami tidal wave at Hitachinaka city in Ibaraki. Photo: AP

OVERNIGHT, Channel NewsAsia (CNA) has become the new public enemy number one, beating Al Qaeda and President Nathan, who just received a fat pay raise.

All over Facebook, Singaporeans reacted in horror when a gleeful email by the CNA marketing department calling for advertising inquiries for its coverage of the earthquake was leaked.

“Call our advertising rep now!” sounding like just another sales pitch.

Former MediaCorp CEO Lucas Chow must be glad that he’s not in the middle of this unfolding tragi-comedy. Websites like Mr Brown, The Online Citizen, and yes, New Nation are quick to pounce on this unfortunate letter, and I’m guessing Straits Times journalists will, too (some already have).

But did CNA really commit an ethical misstep?

Let us establish what is clear: The way the letter is phrased sounds disturbing. There is a lack of appreciation for the fact that this is a major earthquake that has claimed hundreds of lives and caused significant infrastructural damage.

We may also question CNA’s decision to display advertisements in its coverage of the disaster. I was told that several notable news channels remove all advertisement breaks when reporting breaking news.

But it is hard to decide where to draw the line.

Ever since the advertisement revenue model for the media became standard practice, news outlets have been profiteering from all sorts of misfortune: murders, suicides, earthquakes, and sex scandals.

Honestly, were you ever angry at Channel NewsAsia when it displayed advertisements for its coverage of Jack Neo’s sex scandal? Is one’s misfortune any less than that of a thousand’s?

That is the dark side of the media that journalists have concealed so well. In fact, we can argue that the only mistake the marcomm guy at MediaCorp made was breaking the unspoken rule of being too honest. Journalists are known to crack the most unsavoury jokes about the crimes they cover. Are they sadistic? Or is that merely a psychological mechanism to deal with the trauma they face at work? What about war correspondents, some of whom enjoy the adrenaline of covering conflict, and get paid for it?

Let’s assume we live in a world where it is absolutely wrong for media outlets to profiteer from disaster coverage. Credible newspapers all around the world would be guilty as charged. Prominent news wires like Reuters and Associated Press would not escape, because they sell bad news to the newspapers.

So here’s the inescapable truth: For decades, journalists have been taught that bad news sells. The bigger the natural disaster, the more readership will rise. 10,000 deaths is always better than 10. And readers have succumbed to this journalistic logic, paying 80 cents to read about the latest casualty count.

All along, we have always taken sadistic pleasure from the misfortune of others. So if you want to be angry, get mad at the entire media ecosystem: From the advertisers to the media outlets and yes, the viewers.

No demand, no supply, right?

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  • jermyn Wee

    i think its not too much to ask for a little sensitivity.
    Even the financial news outlets know how to report financial advice sensitively when such tragedies happen,

    • terence

      my point exactly

  • alf

    CNA is gutter news anyway, it’s about as new as Al-Jazeera yet look at the huge and ever widening chasm in standards between the channels

  • Eva

    Jermyn hits the nail on the head here. As much as this is about the media’s complicit nature in playing up horrific tragedies to draw viewership, which I think as consumers we all accept and understand because we want to know about what’s going on, this is also basically a silly oversight on CNA’s part. Until other media agencies slip up or result to similar tacky opportunistic strategies let’s pin it on the organisation that actually made the mistake.

  • Really?

    “All along, we have always taken sadistic pleasure from the misfortune of others.”

    Actually, I couldn’t care less about human tragedy. I’m not interested in coverage of tsunamis or earthquakes or murders. I’m more interested in news about politics, economics, science and technology, etc. I prefer newspapers that devote a lot of space to opinion and commentary.

    Unfortunately, most people are not of an intellectual bent and would rather read about the sordid details of sex scandals, deaths and disasters. There are tabloids like The New Paper and Wanbao to cater to this audience. I’m just disappointed to see supposedly “respectable” news outlets like Channel NewsAsia actively courting them too.

    • Really??

      @Really?: I hardly think caring about disasters preclude an “intellectual bent”. Get off your imaginary high horse there and show some sympathy for people who have just lost their lives and everything they hold dear.

  • mackinder

    Every media agencies understand that political chaos, natural disasters et al make perfect timing to accelerate the amount of eyeballs they receive.

    The difference is that most international agencies do not need to stoop to the level of hawking their wares like these in an insensitive fashion.

    Seems to me this email is an internal communications script bunny mistakenly farmed out as a client-side communication.