Charting the public’s engagement with disaster media

This week in North Philly Notes, Timothy Recuber, author of Consuming Catastrophe, writes about our media-induced empathy for disaster victims, and the problems associated with empathetic hedonism.

From October 4th to October 10th, Hurricane Matthew trudged up the Atlantic coast from Cuba to North Carolina. It killed hundreds in Haiti and caused billions of dollars in damages in the United States. And for several days, it monopolized our attention, elbowing its way into public consciousness alongside the US presidential elections, as news networks provided live coverage in the States while citizen journalists sent shaky, handheld camera footage from locations throughout the Caribbean. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, harrowing tales of rescues mixed together with heart-wrenching stories of loss and earnest appeals to charitable giving on our televisions and computers. Then we began the process of forgetting. Presidential election coverage returned to its absurd heights. War crimes in Yemen took center stage among the foreign news reports. And life for all of us distant spectators of mass-mediated disaster returned to normal.

While this pattern of public engagement with disasters is not surprising, it deserves scrutiny. What does it mean to understand the suffering of others in these ways? How does the increasingly intense and intimate coverage of catastrophes encourage certain kinds of reactions, and discourage others? What sorts of narratives win out when we understand disasters and loss through the succession of powerful yet fleeting mass-mediated experiences, where one disaster and then then next appear and disappear before our eyes? And how are new media technologies altering or reinforcing these patterns?

consuming-catastrophe_smThese were the questions I set out to answer in Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster. I focused on a particularly tumultuous time period in recent American history: the first decade of the twenty first century. From the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, the financial crisis in 2008, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, America was rocked by some of the largest disasters in the country’s history. Yet despite very significant differences in the duration, cost, and amount of lives lost due to these disasters, each followed a fairly similar path through mass-media and public consciousness. Using close reading and discourse analysis of news transcripts, documentary films, reality television programs, and digital archives, I was able to trace out some of the larger cultural norms that emerged during this period.

Chief among these norms is the obligation to show empathy to those directly affected by disasters. In the book, I develop the concept of empathetic hedonism as a way to understand the media-induced pleasure in attempting to imagine what others are feeling, even if those feelings are painful. We are, I argue, increasingly asked to empathize with a whole host of suffering others today. And this certainly can be a good thing. But that empathy often comes at a cost. It is easily focused on individuals and their personal problems, but hard to direct towards structural issues. It is intense but short lived, such that the long aftermath of rebuilding is often ignored. And it works best with spectacular, acute disasters—like hurricanes—rather than long, slow, diffuse disasters—like global climate change, even though the latter has more damaging consequences than anything else. Thus we need to think critically about where and how our attention and emotion is being directed during and after disasters. And as I suggest in Consuming Catastrophe, we need to focus on the less spectacular work of creating a more just society all of the time, not just when disaster strikes.

Disaster for Dogs

Leslie Irvine, author of Filling the Ark speaks out about animal welfare in disasters.

Filling the Ark

Filling the Ark

On Wednesday, February 11, a team of trained disaster responders converged on a home in Sparta, Tennessee. The effort involved law enforcement and medical personnel, forensics investigators, and emergency relief vehicles loaded with supplies. Rescuers who entered the premises had to wear respirators and other protective equipment. Most of the victims required immediate medical attention. Four were found dead. Many victims were pregnant or nursing mothers. The rescue effort eventually involved over fourteen agencies in several states, along with dozens of volunteers. Rescuers transported the victims, who numbered nearly 300, to an emergency shelter at a local fairground. Many have since moved to temporary homes in other states. Even after they move into permanent homes, some of the victims will suffer the effects of trauma forever. The rescue cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and untold hours of work.

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