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Making disaster porn

Making disaster porn

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Much of the media’s coverage of Japan’s nuclear crisis is overblown, a direct result of the media’s mission to entertain, and not just report news. The writer wishes to remain anonymous.

Losing hope: A woman cries while sitting on a road amid the destroyed city of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture. Photo: REUTERS

STORIES sell. Stories based on a true event that read even better than fiction, even more so. But a story’s still a story: narrative is king and facts are a necessary embellishment.

Facts: Death toll rises above 3,000 after Japan quake, 100,000 presumed dead in 2010 Haiti quake, libya death toll rises to 84 as Gaddafi battles rebels, China quake leaves 25 dead in Southwest China… We could go on playing with the numbers all day though this meaningless data serve little purpose than to legitimize the factuality of the stories.

While compadres in the western online media have started bashing their establishment again, calling the American news networks distributors of disaster porn, us here in Asia have less of a problem with sensationalizing disasters. But the media’s still milking it for all it’s worth.

Take Channel NewsAsia for example. I’m watching their coverage of the radiation leak in Japan as I write this. It’s interesting how they picked that one specific soundbite from Yukio Edano (Japanese chief cabinet secretary) mentioning that radiation will have an effect on human beings, conveniently forgetting the later part when he mentions that radiation outside the safety zone is harmless.

There’s little room to argue that media coverage of any disaster DOESN’T amount to disaster porn. However, this critique, unleashed with good reason during the coverage of the 2010 Haiti quake and most recently, the Middle East uprising, may be a tad unfair on an industry that survives on advertising dollars and/or the number of eyeballs glued on their content.

A wise, and sometimes wisecracking professor of mine said recently in an email:

“My view is that media corporations see themselves as being in the entertainment business and news is considered one form of entertainment. Beyond the stock market round-ups and oil price charts, they really have little interest in what gets sent out by way of “news” so long as it does not interfere with their bottom line. War, chaos human pathos and tragedy sell, so they will always be a feature of the news, as will celebrity scandal, but beyond that very few outlets delve deep into their subject matter or question the logics of the corporate masters.”

Is it always the fault of the big corporate man though? When even self-proclaimed, government subsidized (read: NOT capitalist-driven) MediaCorp chooses to hawk the coverage of Japan’s worst earthquake in recorded history through a mass mailer, it makes you wonder if it’s just the profit incentive that’s driving media organizations to whore their depiction of human tragedy.

Consumer news is never about giving you what you need to know. It’s about giving you what the media thinks you want to know, or what they think you will respond to.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, MediaCorp’s not alone on this. Microsoft came under fire from online vigilantes after bing.com tweeted:

“How you can #SupportJapan – http://binged.it/fEh7iT. For every retweet @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims up to $100k.”

As the good ol’ capitalist critique goes: it’s all about supply and demand. Everyone loves a scandal. Now when it’s technologically possible to broadcast your opinions worldwide in the comment box below the article, it’s the most controversial stories that get the clicks, tweets, comments and eyeballs. Not the dry factual stuff that gives you what you need to know to form an educated opinion. That’s wikipedia man which , by the way, still asks for donations every now and then. They’re not the ones that are going to send reporters down to war torn countries to give you the facts straight from the fight zone.

Revenue generating news will always be the quotes or stories controversial enough to get you fired up and talking. “ZOMG! Look at how Larry Kudlow debased human life by comparing the death toll with the economic impact! The asshole!”

Hey, but it got you thinking beyond the body count right? If anything, it may have made him a more sought after economic pundit.

Consumer news is never about giving you what you need to know. It’s about giving you what the media thinks you want to know, or what they think you will respond to. Moralists in particular get a field day with each controversy that gives them a chance to evangelize conservatism substantiated with nothing more than horrific pathos.

For instance, nuclear energy opponents the world over, having been ignored the past decade, are now under the spotlight again. “Nuclear energy should never be considered because of what happened at Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island” so they say. The partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile caused no casualties but cost slightly less than $1 billion USD and 12 years to clean up. Analysts are now saying the cost of rebuilding Japan could amount to $228 billion SGD.

Still, a risk is a risk is a risk. This article gives some context to the current nuclear overreaction.

“Every energy source has risks and economic externalities, whether they are noise and bird kills (wind), huge land requirements (solar), rig explosions and tanker spills (oil), or mining accidents (coal).”

Hypothetically, a nuclear fallout could be devastating and will affect many generations to come. Yet compare the number of casualties from nuclear plant-related accidents to say, deaths from coal mining per year and you get a sense of how disproportionate nuclear fear mongering has become. Yes, there could be devastation from nuclear energy but there already is calculable harm done in terms of worker injuries and environmental costs from coal or oil generated energy.

Speaking of oil, does anyone still remember Gaddafi in Libya? What about Saudi Arabia sending in troops to Bahrain this morning to protect the Sunni monarchy? Nah, not so exciting there. The quake provides more drama.

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