Suffering continues long after the cameras stop rolling
Mainstream television’s reporting of natural and other catastrophes has turned the delivery of information about human struggle, the mighty elements, loss and its consequences into nothing more than disaster porn.
Nowhere has this been so evident than with the recent “live” coverage of the Tasmania bushfires.
Late last week and into this one, the south-east of Tasmania burned, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents and holidaymakers as homes and livelihoods, never mind beloved pets and essential livestock perished.
Operating under the guise of “human interest” and “keeping the public informed’‘, reporters from various television networks descended upon the Apple Isle and into the afflicted communities and evacuation centres determined to be “the first’’ with a scoop.
Crossing in situ during any disaster has become de rigueur, as if reporting in place gives the story more gravitas. The last thing a community in calamity needs is extra people, strangers, who aren’t there to help as much as they are to exploit.
Finding bewildered and displaced people in affected areas, reporters posed and repeated invasive and stupid questions (“are you heartbroken?’‘), set ridiculous expectations (“when do you expect to start rebuilding?’‘), and attempted to make those interviewed emote to the point of breakdown.
Tears become justification for keeping cameras rolling, to capture grief for all to share for what purpose exactly? An emotional soundtrack accompanied some reports; a soap opera instead of news.
Sadly, for all the earnest reporting and faux displays of empathy, the media interest only lasts until the next emergency.
The commercial imperative that drives the networks means as soon as the next ``big story’’ breaks, the television crews will move on.
‘Til then, however, the current disaster is recycled ad nauseum (often in truncated form) across news, current affairs and morning shows. New angles are found for our consumption and consume them we do like fast food.
Since when has this desire to make suffering the story, to wring every last scrap of emotion, become newsworthy?
Focusing on losses, fear, suffering and trauma, this type of reporting, our expectations about broadcasts and even our reactions, are normalised.
Some victims willingly talk to the reporters, believing they’re doing the community a service by explaining what happened, their grief, gratitude for the help they received and that they survived.
But where will the crews be when rebuilding starts? Answer: doing what’s required of them. Filming and filing from elsewhere.
Where will the interested audiences be? Answer: glued to the next catastrophe, oohing, aahing and feeling grateful it’s not us burning, drowning, being blown to smithereens.
No doubt, the media serves a very important role in terms of social understanding of all kinds of events triumphs, tragedies and everything in between. In this, print media especially has the time to display a degree of sensitivity and appropriateness.
But, somewhere along the way, particularly in TV current affairs, the need to inform has blurred with the desire to entertain.
Hence, we have disaster porn, a media sideshow from which we’re unable to look away; where we, the audience, become voyeurs of the worst kind, fascinated by the spectacle of others’ despair and trauma.
The ethics of this kind of “on the ground’’ and “in your face’’ reporting, the insidious nature of the interviews, needs to be balanced against respect for human dignity and an awareness that those in crisis must be allowed time and space to process what’s occurred without a camera or microphone in their face.
David Salter, in his book, The Media We Deserve argues, “the media have become so pervasive and powerful that they may be beginning to supplant reality itself. Events, ideas and issues now struggle to have any meaning unless they’ve been packaged for us by the media.”
We need to ensure that, as both audiences and human beings, we don’t overlook the people at the heart of these stories or what their losses mean. Long after the cameras stop rolling, their suffering and attempts to rebuild continue, as does their hope for the future.
Dr Karen Brooks is an associate professor at the UQ Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies.
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