Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Question of Ethics: The Media and Disaster Preparation

This past Friday evening as I was putting the finishing touches on my hurricane preparations, I made one last check of my email before packing up my computer and moving it to a safer spot. With Ike a mere few hours away, I found this lead article on AOL (see picture). Is it sensationalist? Definitely. Is it misleading to place the picture of the fellow standing in the spray of the Galveston seawall adjacent to a caption about a wall of water hitting Texas? Probably. You could tell the man was on the seawall if you know the Galveston seawall like most of us on the coast, or if you moused-over the picture and then it mentioned that it was a man on the seawall with the pre-storm waves splashing up, and not exactly a wall of water as referenced in the accompanying headline ... if you moused over the picture instead of, say, reading the headline.

I do not want to single out this AOL article as if it were the only sensationalist piece of hype I'd seen during my preparations for the hurricane. For the record, even the vast majority of those who rode out Ike on Galveston Island survived so they did not, after all, face certain death. Ike was repeatedly referred to in media reports as enormous, monstrous, and a variety of other adjectives playing up its impressive size and strength. Honestly, folks, it was a Category 2 storm in a zone where most things are rated Category 3 (though obviously not our power infrastructure). I do not mean to minimize the menace that was Ike, or the long night we all spent Friday night and into Saturday as the storm barreled through, or the hardships of days without power or any way to replace supplies of water or food or fuel -- which is still the situation in some places though in increasingly isolated pockets as the days go by. There were even a number of deaths, a few from the storm and possibly as many or more from misuse of generators / candles / power tools etc. afterwards. The deaths from the actual strike of Ike are still less than the deaths from the mass evacuation (note: not the storm but the evacuation) three years ago for Rita.

My point is this: panic, desperation, lack of information and poor planning have been responsible for more hurricane deaths around here than the actual hurricanes. To what extent is the media responsible for fueling that most deadly part of a disaster, namely panic, with its hysterical headlines? If someone went into a crowded movie house and yelled "Fire" hysterically rather than with rational instructions about proceeding calmly to the nearest exit, would that announcer be morally responsible if there were a trampling death during the panic?

My concern is this: the media have a theoretical job of passing along information. However, this is often eclipsed by the desire for ratings. Hype creates ratings, therefore the media creates hype. At what point do they (did they) cross the line to generating fear to rake in a bigger profit? In a dangerous situation, is the fearmongering-for-profit dynamic ethical?


ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

The storm coverage on CNN, et al, usually shows the same damaged building, same flooded intersection, same place on the sea wall, etc. I always wonder: is that representative or is that the worst they can find so that is what they show???

Also, I think, hmmmm, this is more for "entertainment" than news for those affected because the affected people don't have electricity.

Granted, my comments are about "during" the storm and the aftermath, but I think the same principles you are questioning apply.

Weekend Fisher said...

Still I think you're right. As soon as I saw your comment I thought about one of the lead stories in the local news today. This is a cut-and-paste from an article in the Galveston Daily News:

GALVESTON — Despite the images of horrific destruction broadcast on television and by other media across the nation, the island is not beyond salvation and recovery efforts are ahead of schedule, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said Thursday.

(end of cut & paste)
Anyway, yes, they exactly do find the worst picture they can show, then show that. I saw one of the news stations doing a helicopter flyover of each neighborhood on the island, and most (by far most) of the homes are still habitable with some roof repair.

So parts of the media are being downright unhelpful and misleading with their coverage. And KPRC just got some loyalty from me for their realistic/holistic coverage.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Tony-Allen said...

When I started working for a local news station in my area, I was told I'd either grow to love the media or hate it. Unfortunately, it's been the latter, precisely for all the reasons you mentioned. The amount of sensationalism is simply ridiculous, and I think there is starting to be less and less of a responsibility in reporting. For example, when a storm comes towards the United States, the media immediately says, "Gas prices are going to go up." Stations across America, before prices even rise, then think, "That's my cue."

If you think the coverage of Ike was bad, you should have been here for the tropical storm that went through a few weeks ago. By the way we were covering it, you would have thought it was Katrina. We have people on the shift around 24/7 (which unfortunately included me, and I had to be there from 2pm to 11am the next day) and reporters where the storm was hitting. It amounted to some light rain and gusty winds. Nothing big. The most damage (I think I mentioned this in another post, I apologize) was a few wet cats.

The problem with this method of reporting is that it makes people lose interest in a story that they might need to be following (a case of the boy who cried wolf) and it causes unnecessary panic in many areas, causing anxiety. It's all basically one of many reasons I'm seeking a new job elsewhere.

Weekend Fisher said...

I have often thought that there is need for a Christian news outlet. Now, by this I do NOT mean a ghetto-ized news outlet that tracks "Christian news". I mean a real full-fledged news outlet that operates with fairness and integrity.

By the way, I don't expect I'll grow tired of your stories about the local news station. I love having a view into how the news is put together -- which stories are deemed worthy of coverage and how they are covered. I'd be glad to hear more stories, truth be told. :)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Tony-Allen said...

I'm always willing to share, although I don't want to hijack someone else's blog about it, ha ha.

E-mail me if you want to hear any more, I list my address on my blog, under my profile.