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.

Where will the cameras be when the long process of rebuilding begins?

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.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST

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    • acotrel says:

      05:32am | 09/01/13

      Most recent disasters have been due to extreme weather events.  How much is unmoderated capitalism and consumerism to blame ?

    • Aghast says:

      09:33am | 09/01/13

      None, nil, zilch.

      It is an irrational statement to attempt to link extreme weather events to unmoderated capitalism/consumerism - that is unless you attribute the last iceage to the spending habits of cavemen in Europe and Africa. I’m sure all those 4WD’s that the neanderthals were driving around in, and the big screen televisions they were watching must have been responsible for the severe climatic shifts back then - both cooling and warming.

      In my opinion acotrel, you are so skilled with the longbow, that you should offer your services to Henry V’s English army at Agincourt.

      Australia has always suffered extreme weather events - if you want to lay proper blame for these fires, then I’ll happily point you in the direction of the Greens, who I believe are almost entirely responsible.

      This article should further illuminate your ignorance.

    • Jay2 says:

      02:14pm | 09/01/13

      @aghast, great link.  Yep, this has been the same frustration that is experienced by many people. Personally, I feel the Greens should be forced to go and put down every single native animal that has been left to suffer a slow death after a fire. AFter that, perhaps they can have a turn at wielding a rifle to shoot stock half burnt alive, then maybe they can go to those who lost homes and lastly, go and see the people who have lost loved ones.

      A sensible eco balance will never occur I feel, due to the Greens.

    • yeah-no says:

      07:51am | 09/01/13

      ‘since when has this desire to make suffering the story begun?’ Since media began, I expect. Certainly the article offers nothing to show that it’s new. Most news is voyeurism, always has been. Consumers gobble it up and the appetite is never satisfied for long. For a long time now, it,s not really news unless there are pictures of people doing something you don’t see every day, such as grieving in public. If you don’t like it, do what I do - limit news consumption, and don’t watch TV news at all.

    • Margie says:

      09:19am | 09/01/13

      Excellent article & so very true.  This type of reporting is just a disgrace and an invasion of people’s privacy. I remember some years back there was a terrible accident on the Pacific Highway in which 9 members of one family died.  The sole survivor was interviewed in his bed in hospital and asked how he felt.  I was completely disgusted with the questioner and the question and phoned the TV station to register my disgust..Of course, the hospital also was at fault for allowing the media access to the patient.
      This type of voyeurism is completely unwarranted, why do T.V stations think we want to watch disasters such as these 24 hours a day, ad infinitum?

    • yeah-no says:

      10:15am | 09/01/13

      Why do TV stations think people want to watch this stuff? Because they do, as the ratings for news programs converting disasters shows.

    • The Humane View says:

      08:34am | 09/01/13

      The tsunami in 2004 is the biggest disaster I have seen in my lifetime The widely accepted view of it is that it had nothing to do with the weather.

      If you are able, take the politics away and, look at it from the humane perspective

      The big issue is the number of individuals who died and the circumstances under which they died not the number of disasters that are automatically tagged extreme weather events for political reasons.

    • acotrel says:

      09:45am | 09/01/13

      The Fukushima reactors aspect of the Tsunami disaster was man made , and that risk is being conveniently ignored in a political quest to find a response to the ALP’s carbon pricing, even though it has been previously accepted as appropriate by both major parties in Australia. Nuclear power will not stop global warming, it simply replaces one risk with another which has much more potential to lay waste the planet.  The China Syndrome was invented by Hollywood, but it is possible.

    • marley says:

      10:06am | 09/01/13

      @acotrel - the whole point of carbon pricing is to reduce the use of fossil fuels.  That leaves us with renewables and nuclear - and renewables at this stage can’t fill the gap.  That leaves nuclear, which actually has an excellent safety record over 60 years.  It makes no sense to sell our uranium to countries like India, while refusing to invest in nuclear ourselves.  The risk lies far more with India and other third world countries than with us.

    • Schmavo says:

      09:07am | 09/01/13

      For me, the excessive coverage de-sensitises the human element. It’s so over the top and it’s a bit like chickens scratching around for food. Some of the scraps they come up with are just woeful. Cringeworthy even.

    • Harquebus says:

      10:32am | 09/01/13

      What gets me about the fire coverage is the ignorance displayed by journalists. Extinguishing bushfires allows the build up fuel which, makes subsequent fires worse. The dillbrains are still trying to put them out. Never before in the history of our continent has this happened. Nature starts bushfires when there is fuel to burn and extinguishes them when there is not.
      Just let them burn and then, we will not have the destructive megafires that we have created.

    • St. Michael says:

      11:44am | 09/01/13

      Harq! Long time no Flash, man! wink

    • Ash says:

      12:06pm | 09/01/13

      Arsonists have also started some of these fires, do you seriously think we should just sit down and let them burn, that trying to save towns is a waste of time?

    • PsychoHyena says:

      12:44pm | 09/01/13

      @Harque, so you would be quite happy to sit back and watch your house burn so that the fire can burn itself out in order to prevent megafires?

      I also think you are forgetting the bushfires of 1967 in Tasmania which burnt 69% of the populated areas.

    • Harquebus says:

      01:47pm | 09/01/13

      Self extinguishing low intensity fires will not be as dangerous to property and assets that current over fueled blazes are.
      St. M. You remembered.

    • Dave Charlesworth says:

      10:50am | 09/01/13

      Cue Karl Stefo….

      He won a Logi for this very same thing and has not been seen since at a flood or fire… go figure?

    • Michael says:

      12:54pm | 09/01/13

      I know for a fact, that Sky News jumped on the porch of a destroyed house a friend of the family has, before the they had even had a chance to get in to see it.  The first time they saw the destruction was on TV.. THAT, is just plain wrong.

    • W J Craig (Mrs) says:

      12:57pm | 09/01/13

      It really must get up the noses of those fighting those fires when reporters start trying to interview them whilst they are carrying out possibly life-saving duties.
      At least SBS-TV, unlike those clowns from Channel 10, kept their reporters to interviewing those running the show & well away from the actual fires.
      One more reason to never tune into Channel 10.
      Boys’n'Girls, stop getting in the way & let those brave men & women do their jobs without being pestered by sensation-seeking gits.
      Better still, if you must interfere then put on the protective gear & start helping.

    • Robert S McCormick says:

      01:13pm | 09/01/13

      Send those who deliberately light fires to prison for the “Term of their Natural Life” - irrespective of age or gender.
      Let those, like that clown who left a camp-fire burning in Tasmania, also go to prison for the same period.
      It will only take one or two people in each State or Territory to be locked away forever & it be widely publicised, photos & all, to make other think twice before they try it on.
      Just as we have long-since disallowed the defence of ” I was drunk, Your Honour”, the introduction of smart-arse psychologists etc. to plead “Mental Illness” should also be disallowed. Unless completely deranged, in which case they would have long ago been held in a mental health facility, to allow a person to claim they did not know what they were doing was wrong is utter bullshit. EG. A 60+ man, who had his working mobile phone with him, lit a fire because he claimed he had Mental Health Issues, had gotten caught in blackberry bushes & regressed to his youth when, it was claimed he had been taught to light a fire to attract attention. When the Firies got to him he was standing free in a clearance a considerable distance form the blackberries!!. He got off using his, alleged Mental Health Issues.
      What he was doing on a Total Fire Ban Day many dozens of kilometres from his inner-city suburban home was never explained.

    • Humane View says:

      02:09pm | 09/01/13


      You are absolutely right about risk.

      Radiation leaks at Fukishima were a risk but it was the risk from tsunamis that proved to be the greater risk,

      The irony is, if a fraction of money put into tackling “global warming” had be directed at the risk of tsunamis, hundreds of thousands could be alive today.

    • paul says:

      02:20pm | 09/01/13

      We should be thankful we love in Australia where things get done.

      In America Sandy victims have still only received a small portion of relief money due to you guessed it - Fighting between the dems and Repubs. Mainly Repubs, but they both suck. Even with the animosity between Julia and Tony a relief bill would shoot through.

    • Geko says:

      02:54pm | 09/01/13

      Acotrel wrote “Most recent disasters have been due to extreme weather events.  How much is unmoderated capitalism and consumerism to blame ? “

      Dunno, but I know that the fire disaster in Tasmania is entirely the work of green fanatics.

      Tasmania is a petri dish, demonstrating the consequences of green ideology run rampant.

      No jobs, the forestry industry on its knees, and bushfires feasting on fuel built up over two mild fire seasons.

      Yet, instead of facing up to their errors, the Greens conveniently blame “climate change”.

      They pretend imposing a carbon tax or destroying the coal industry will prevent bushfires, while reducing the actual fuel which powers the flames is “futile”.

      There but for the grace of God goes the rest of Australia

    • PsychoHyena says:

      05:08pm | 09/01/13

      @Geko, you might be interested to know that the forestry industry here in Tas has been failing for years and has received more government assistance to do so than any other industry.

      Though I guess recycling paper and using less timber products does have an impact on the number of trees. Though perhaps you would care to explain the devastation caused by the 1967 bushfires and how the Greens were involved in that when they hadn’t even been established.

      Acotrel is right in that extreme weather events are to blame, dry weather followed by lightning and no rain followed by strong winds and hot temperatures and more dry weather is responsible for most of the bushfires currently here in Tas.


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