News broadcasts are some of the few memories I have from my and my family’s evacuation of Southeastern Louisiana for Hurricane Katrina. Every day and night, we would watch the unending coverage of the storm destroying the Gulf Coast. Over a decade later, the destruction that Katrina caused can still be seen in parts of New Orleans, as rebuilding efforts have been focused on tourist attractions and more affluent neighborhoods. I’ve lived through hurricanes, including one that sent a massive oak tree crashing on my house several feet from where I slept, so the portrayal of natural disasters is important to me. Watching Hurricane Harvey now brings memories of my time with Katrina, and it raises a difficult question for me: Is the media coverage of natural disaster appropriate?
In one sense, major news network coverage gives voice to the people who need it the most. Conversely, it can often feel as though cable news exploits people in crisis for ratings. So where is the balance?
The world needs to know the condition of the storm and how the people of Texas will fare. While the cell service frequently went out, CNN and the Weather Channel helped track the rising waters in the areas of loved ones. When I lost contact with my friend in Houston, cable news let me know his neighborhood was affected by the overflowing Addicks Dam. Simultaneously, the news showed the victims of Hurricane Harvey and the conditions placed on them. Images of the crowded convention center and victims huddled on air boats force us to reevaluate disaster preparedness. The core success of the media during a catastrophe is the attention it brings.
Before the era of cable news, continuous broadcasting did not exist. Now the news can focus on one story like Hurricane Harvey for countless hours. This means important stories of Houston’s collective effort receive the coverage they deserve. The Cajun Navy, an informal collection of first responders on the gulf coast who mobilize during natural disasters, gets their story told. People can witness Houston residents as they form a human chain to save a pregnant woman trapped in her house. The nation deserves to know the story of people like my friend who turn their houses into shelters for their less fortunate neighbors. Paradoxically, the unending focus on catastrophes is both the triumph and despicable failure of the modern media.
During terrorist attacks and mass shootings, cable news redirects all their programming to focus on the tragedy for the next few days. Under the label of “breaking news,” anchors often reiterate information and disturbing images because pain and violence attract viewers. Major news media networks are so desperate for new information that they often mistakenly report falsehoods and rumors in the wake of mass violence. Hungrily chasing ratings, reporters have interviewed young children minutes after they saw horrific violence. Breaking news coverage of tragedy is so dramatic that some psychologists argue the media contributes to a rise in mass violence.
The societal damage of constant media attention extends to the victims of natural disasters. Hurricane Harvey could trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in Hurricane Katrina victims. And ominous news reports exacerbate those symptoms. Natural disasters can be traumatic, and sometimes I feel like the media broadcasts that personal trauma into millions of homes for all the wrong reasons.
Countless times during the storm, reporters interviewed people who had just gotten off a rescue boat. Why did reporters put those survivors—many of whom had just lost their homes and cherished possessions—on live national news? They did not have new intel about the storm, and many shared the same experience of not knowing what to do next. Were reporters hoping for new information about the experience of a hurricane survivor or did they want a sobering sound bite to add to the parade of shocking images from the storm?
When no new information about the storm is coming to light, news teams fill the airwaves with any terror or destruction they can find. Sometimes this leads to ludicrous journalism, like last Saturday when the Weather Channel broadcasted a developing sinkhole in Rosenberg, Texas, waiting for it to fully collapse. For the reporter, showing and reporting the sinkhole was inadequate; he needed to capture the roadway crumble on camera. I realized I had been watching this reporter and a sinkhole for more than ten minutes. There was no news or recent developments in weather, only the hope to catch every morsel of destruction on live television. When the news strives to find anything even slightly shocking, it’s not hard to imagine giddy media executives when actual, dreadful news breaks like the water flowing over the Addicks Dam.
For all the needed attention Texas and Southwestern Louisiana receives, is constant coverage positive if it strives to make a theatrical display of tragedy?
Good journalism opens audiences to new information and analysis. Among others, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow exemplified this throughout the storm, asking what decisions must be made now and in the future. Cable news does not need to be an inundated feed of apocalyptic imagery. It can enlighten audiences to new issues and consult experts about the long-term options for areas affected by natural disaster.
In the coming months, the Wesleyan community should listen to the voices of our peers from the Gulf Coast. The stories they tell are important, and Harvey will be remembered as a monumental event. But most importantly, give affected people the space to grieve on their own terms. Whether you are a friend or a member of the media, it is not justified to pry into someone else’s trauma.