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.

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Books to read in conjunction with the DNC

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of the DNC, we showcase titles that relate to campaigns and elections.

2326_regNavigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns by Kelly Dittmar

From the presidential level down, men and women who run for political office confront different electoral realities. Here Kelly Dittmar investigates not only how gender influences the campaign strategy and behavior of candidates today but also how candidates’ strategic and tactical decisions can influence the gendered nature of campaign institutions. Navigating Gendered Terrain addresses how gender is used to shape the way campaigns are waged by influencing insider perceptions of and decisions about effective campaign messages, images, and tactics within party and political contexts.

2119_regRude Democracy:  Civility and Incivility in American Politics by Susan Herbst

Democracy is, by its very nature, often rude. But there are limits to how uncivil we should be. In this timely and important book, Susan Herbst explores how we discuss public policy, how we treat each other as we do, and how we can create a more civil national culture. Herbst contends that Americans must recognize the bad habits and trends we have developed, use new media for more effective debate, and develop a tougher and more strategic political skin. Rude Democracy outlines a plan for moving forward to create a more civil climate for American politics.

2101_regRace Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns by Charlton D. McIlwain and Stephen M. Caliendo

In our evolving American political culture, whites and blacks continue to respond very differently to race-based messages and the candidates who use them. Race Appeal examines the use and influence such appeals have on voters in elections for federal office in which one candidate is a member of a minority group. Charlton McIlwain and Stephen Caliendo use various analysis methods to examine candidates who play the race card in political advertisements. They offer a compelling analysis of the construction of verbal and visual racial appeals and how the news media covers campaigns involving candidates of color.

1875_regThe Racial Logic of Politics: Asian Americans and Party Competition by Thomas P. Kim

Thomas Kim shows how racism is embedded in America’s two-party political system by examining the institutional barriers that Asian Americans face in the electoral and legislative processes. According to Kim, political party leaders recognize that Asian Americans are tagged with “ethnic markers” that label them as immutably “foreign,” and as such, parties cannot afford to be too closely associated with (racialized) Asian Americans, demonstrating how the political logic of two-party competition actually works against Asian American political interests.

1922_regCampaign Advertising and American Democracy by Michael M. Franz, Paul B. Freedman, Kenneth M. Goldstein and Travis N. Ridout

It has been estimated that more than three million political ads were televised leading up to the elections of 2004. More than $800,000,000 was spent on TV ads in the race for the White House alone and Presidential candidates, along with their party and interest group allies, broadcast over a million ads—more than twice the number aired before the 2000 elections. What were the consequences of this barrage of advertising? Were viewers turned off by political advertising to the extent that it dissuaded them from voting, as some critics suggest? Did they feel more connected to political issues and the political system or were they alienated? These are the questions this book answers, based on a unique, robust, and extensive database dedicated to political advertising.

1921_regChoices and Changes:  Interest Groups in the Electoral Process by Michael M. Franz

Choices and Changes is the most comprehensive examination to date of the impact of interest groups on recent American electoral politics. Richly informed, theoretically and empirically, it is the first book to explain the emergence of aggressive interest group electioneering tactics in the mid-1990s—including “soft money” contributions, issue ads, and “527s” (IRS-classified political organizations). The book substantially advances our understanding of the significance of interest groups in U.S. politics.

2156_reg

Public Financing in American Elections, edited by Costas Panagopoulos

Reformers argue that public financing of campaigns will help rescue American democracy from the corruptive influence of money in elections. Public Financing in American Elections evaluates this claim in an effort to remove the guesswork from the discussion about public finance. Featuring some of the most senior scholars in political science and electoral studies, this book provides an up-to-date treatment of research and thinking about public campaign finance reforms. Exploring proposals at the local, state, and federal levels, the contributors provide a comprehensive overview of public financing initiatives in the United States and an examination of their impact. Also included are focused analyses of various existing public programs.

1891_regMandates, Parties, and Votes: How Elections Shape the Future by James H. Fowler and Oleg Smirnov

Most research on two-party elections has considered the outcome as a single, dichotomous event: either one or the other party wins. In this groundbreaking book, James Fowler and Oleg Smirnov investigate not just who wins, but by how much, and they marshal compelling evidence that mandates—in the form of margin of victory—matter. Using theoretical models, computer simulation, carefully designed experiments, and empirical data, the authors show that after an election the policy positions of both parties move in the direction preferred by the winning party—and they move even more if the victory is large. In addition, Fowler and Smirnov not only show that the divergence between the policy positions of the parties is greatest when the previous election was close, but also that policy positions are further influenced by electoral volatility and ideological polarization.

And forthcoming in September….

2407_regThe Gendered Executive: A Comparative Analysis of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Chief Executives edited by Janet M. Martin and MaryAnne Borrelli

Excluded from the ranks of elite executive decision-makers for generations, women are now exercising power as chiefs of government and chiefs of state. As of April 2016, 112 women in 73 countries have served as presidents or prime ministers.  The Gendered Executive is a critical examination of national executives, focusing on matters of identity, representation, and power. The editors and contributors to this volume address the impact of female executives through political mobilization and participation, policy- and decision-making, and institutional change. Other topics include party nomination processes, the intersectionality of race and gender, and women-centered U.S. foreign policy in southern Africa. In addition, case studies from Chile, India, Portugal, and the United States are presented, as are cross-national comparisons of women leaders in Latin America.

 

What Melissa Harris-Perry Has Taught Us About Black Women and Silence

This week, in honor of Women’s History month, we re-post this essay by Trimiko Melancon, author of Unbought and Unbossed, published in Ms. Magazine

Anyone who knows anything about the politics of black womanhood is familiar with how silence operates in relation to black women. And the past few weeks have provided us with an opportunity to consider black women and silence, or the lack thereof, thanks to TV show host Melissa Harris-Perry and her explosive fallout with MSNBC.Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Professor at Wake Forest University, hosted the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC until recently. She is hands-down a brilliant scholar, political scientist and intellectual—both on and off camera. I’ve had the distinct privilege of witnessing this firsthand while working with her when I was the inaugural fellow at the Anna Julia Cooper Project, of which she is the founding director, and when she wrote the dynamic foreword to my book, Black Female Sexualities. Her assessments and analyses—whether conventional, controversial or provocative—have been sharp and welcome on myriad topics. She has invariably provided visibility, voice and a platform for those who—and that which—would have otherwise been neglected.

Unbought_smSo when MSNBC preempted the MHP show and attempted to “disappear” her, as she says, Harris-Perry was not having it. She did not stand by silently or “go gentle into that good night,” as poet Dylan Thomas writes—and her reaction didn’t come as a surprise. Why might we expect otherwise? The truth is Harris-Perry has never, ever been silent: not about who or what matters or about issues that warrant attention. She has spoken boldly about Trayvon Martin, embraced Black Girl Magic and worn tampon earrings on her show to protest anti-abortion legislation. This is, in part, not only the signature beauty and essence of her work, but precisely why she has an incredible following. She has provided one of the few platforms for people to speak, be acknowledged and not be silent or silenced. Harris-Perry’s refusal to be silent as MSNBC preempted her show for election coverage, and her refusal to accept the network’s anti-disparagement clause, perfectly fit her pattern of pushing back.

What, then, are some black feminist lessons we might learn—during Women’s History Month and generally—from MHP and MSNBC regarding black women and silence?

1. “Our Silence Will Not Protect Us”

That’s right. As Audre Lorde noted so eloquently, it simply will not. So all the flimsy criticisms of Harris-Perry’s refusal to be silent have just got to go, as does loaded language about her as “a brilliant, intelligent but challenging and unpredictable personality,” as an MSNBC executive asserted. Such language insults Harris-Perry (and us all) and reduces her to someone who just “went off” (or does not know how to “act right”). And that’s not only simplistic—it’s downright unfair. What Harris-Perry demonstrated in speaking out against MSNBC is called complexity and being a full-fledged human being with the capacity for, and right to, free expression. And women, especially black women, generally aren’t allowed to embody those qualities without facing castigation and gendered stereotypes.

2. “I Am Not Wrong: Wrong Is Not My Name”

Let’s be clear: This situation calls attention to the ways black women must constantly prove their own inherent worth, brilliance, value and #BlackGirlGenius within a white system. There’s no single monolithic way for black women (or anyone, for that matter) to react in circumstances, inevitable or not. Harris-Perry was not wrong in her reaction—she simply has dimension, and so do other black women. Folks need to listen to black women without unwarranted questioning, incredulity or disbelief regarding the authenticity of our words or actions—or expect that we must consistently submit or be dignified in our responses. MHP has the right—and an actual freedom of speech—to not be silent when, how and if she chooses, as do we all. As we know by now, acting right will not save us our jobs or, for that matter, our lives.

3, “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House”

Networks like MSNBC need to act right. Yes, of course they must meet ratings demands. But far too often these kinds of entities capitalize on the labor and talent of folks like Harris-Perry, then quickly dispose of them when their views no longer line up with the network’s. Ask Keith Olbermann, Martin Bashir, Al Sharpton, Alex Wagner, Karen Finney, Joy Reid or others. Kudos to Melissa Harris-Perry and respect to her for fighting the good fight, refusing to be silent and knowing not only her worth, but that “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.”

Trimiko Melancon, a professor of English, African American studies and women’s studies at Loyola University New Orleans, is the author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and editor of Black Female Sexualities. Connect with her at trimikomelancon.com or on Twitter @trimikomelancon.
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