Making disaster porn

Posted on 16 March 2011

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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This post was written by:

- who has written 81 posts on New Nation.

Terence is an online media nut that is obsessed with writing and publishing on the Internet. Recently, he took up photography to expand his repertoire, and hopes to learn videography soon. He has worked in both online and print publications such as The Straits Times, Today, Mind Your Body, The Online Citizen, and Funkygrad. He is currently the assistant editor with SGEntrepreneurs, a website that covers entrepreneurship in Singapore and Asia. Terence can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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  • no-nuclear

    not forgetting that the Chernobyl accident created an exclusion zone of 30km and cause the place to become a ghost town till today. The three mile island accident cause various immune disease to the residents in the island when it is only a partial meltdown like what happened in Japan.

    i would say human definitely can find an alternative energy than to use nuclear. while our most harmful natural resource that we are using now, which is oil, produce carbon dioxide and cause acid rain, nuclear waste takes centuries to drop to below safety level before it can be discharged to the environment and even so the effects at low level of radiation cannot be measured but also, cannot be ruled out. we are talking about centuries when we barely have 1 century to live. is that what we really want to leave behind for our future generation?

    better start thinking now.

  • http://newnation.sg Shihan

    nuclear energy poses a large risk, yes. But this can be mitigated with safety measures. The Fukushima reactor was built to withstand up to an 8 richter scale earthquake, but mother nature decided to slam them with a 9 pointer. Who knew?
    Coal and oil pose less of a risk in terms of immediate danger to health, I’ll give that to you. BUT these natural resources are running out fast. And then what? Oil’s not all that harmless too. Look at how many people are dying in Libya, just to fight for control over the oil refineries.

    • Something to consider

      Or, do y’all want no energy to run our economies?

    • seriously?

      i’m actually no-nuclear guy,

      there is actually no substantial proof that coal and oil are running out FAST. just what the OPEC want us to believe in. I can only agree with you that our widely used natural resources happens to be nonrenewable but that doesn’t justify our switch to another nonrenewable resources. Can you see that this is a vicious cycle? what happen one day if Uranium runs out? what’s left in the world will be tons of nuclear waste and possibly an inhabitable planet.

      considering the sun still have a few billion years of lifespan and we don’t suffer the fate of the dinosaurs, it is a possibility that even nuclear energy will run out. so why don’t humanity start developing a renewable resource that can actually sustain ourself? or at least till our sun’s lifespan is up?

      you may think i am absurd talking about billions of years but if we cannot think far ahead into the future then we will forever be content with fulfilling our short sighted goals of satisfying the world’s hunger for energy.

      • seriously?

        by the way.

        people cutting each other’s throat for oil isn’t exactly oil’s fault. its almost like saying nuclear energy is to be blamed for the development of nuclear weapons.

  • sh

    seriously?
    Stick to one nick lah. Otherwise it’s hard for me to address you as a person.

    What kind of renewable resource would you suggest then? How about hook up all the gyms around the world to form a collective energy-producing activity – running on hamster wheels.
    Or we exploit prison labour by transforming them into superfit people. Make them runrunrun…

    I’m not blaming or even personifying oil by referring to the middle east. We’re so dependent on black gold that it’s now worth sacrificing human lives (think of rebel leaders sending their troops out to conquer Benghazi). I’d compare the hunger for oil to blood diamonds.

  • seriously?

    haha yeah i’m sticking to this.

    anyway. i can’t for sure say that we can all stick to one renewable resources because different geographical location favors a certain kind. however renewable resources are indeed abundant. take solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric(didn’t particularly like this one), etc. there are surely ways we can help to improve it.

    the reason why we are so addicted to oil(there is a show about it on discovery channel) is that our industries are fine tuned to oil. cars run on petrol as well as many big machineries in the heavy industries. ships run on oil as well. however if we can break our dependency, renewable resources might just work out.

    i’m glad that as we speak here these possibilities are being explored by scientist and engineers and i just realized that we have digressed from the topic of this article. but its all cool.

  • terence

    guys, here’s an interesting article that expands the debate: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/12/ff_new_nukes/all/1

    it’s not always no-nuclear or bust. Thorium could be a much cleaner and safer alternative to uranium.

  • LJ

    Great alternative!

  • seriously?

    nice alternative as well. if only the reserve of thorium can last us for another 5 billion years before our sun becomes a red giant and swallow earth. if not, we still need renewable resources!

    but surely i believe we can use thorium to plug the gap of the transition from oil to a substantial resources. thanks terence. i learned something new today.

  • http://newnation.sg Shihan

    It’s not just the resource per se, but the infrastructure required to transform that resource into energy. The sun will be here for a couple million more years yes. But the space the solar panels require make it a nonviable alternative. Unless integrated solar panels (ie. solar panels intergrated into the design of the building) become mainstream.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building-integrated_photovoltaics

    You can probably see the same infrastructure problems with thorium. Lovely alternative, but u need a good system to make it work as an energy resource.

    No worries about digressing. It’s a good discussion we’re having here. :) Thanks for commenting.