I thought I’d follow up my last post on #stormporn with a slightly more developed take on the critique of television in event coverage of the sort we had during Hurricane Irene. The public discourse I’ve been following and participating in via Twitter has been built on a few basic premises.
1. Better safe than sorry
2. People died and things were destroyed so it wasn’t hype
3. Katrina was awful, so the news media’s work saved lives
4. Television news provided a lot of information
Let’s deal with these one by one. First, the idea that we ought to be hyper-vigilant rather than dead or injured is indisputable. Better safe than sorry is something worth remembering in any potential disaster. Television as a blunt instrument for warning folks about the danger of hurricanes, for example, is indisputable. When television provides blanket coverage of anything it permeates the environment. The very presence of blanket coverage of Irene on television is the equivalent of shouting, “RUN!” That works and probably saves lives.
The second point, that Irene coverage wasn’t hype because people died and property was destroyed. On the surface, this is true. Or at least it’s true insofar as it repeats the “better safe than sorry” logic to some degree. Getting people to “RUN!” from hurricanes means more people will dodge death and prepare for less property damage, to the best of their ability. Digging a bit deeper, it’s the hype that works as a blunt instrument. The hype was the force behind the loud call for safety. I’m not sure that people need TV hype (or wonderful coverage if you prefer that tack) to get them indoors and safe during a hurricane. Self-preservation drives a lot of the move to safer ground and sturdier surroundings. Sounding the call to higher ground might be just as effective if sirens were sounded at fire houses across America. Sounding that siren constantly all day and all night would be overkill, though.
The third point, that Katrina’s awful outcome justifies the 24-hour storm siren seems a bit egregious to me. Katrina occurred with plenty of forewarning. The government, in fact, had a report in their hands that listed a large hurricane and the breaching of the New Orleans’ levees as one of the Top Three threats to America we can anticipate. Despite all the early warnings, evacuations, and the drum beat of coverage people died and property was destroyed. The failures that constituted the Katrina disaster were a result of government ambivalence and inaction. Irene has been a model of government proactivity and follow through. The television news coverage during Katrina was most distinct after the fact, when the cover was pulled off a city that had been ignored and neglected for as long as anyone can remember, and the overwhelmingly African-American and poor victims who suffered while the government failed. The great triumph of Irene is the seriousness with which every member of the Federal, State, and local governments have taken a storm with far less power and destructive potential than Katrina. Theirs was the narrative of better safe than sorry, and rightly so.
The last idea I want to deal with here is the idea that TV played an important role in informing people. I’ve already said that TV served as the blunt instrument of early warning. It served a purpose. I equated TV coverage to the siren of the local firehouse. Beyond that analogy, I’m not certain television did much more to inform the public about the event or their role in its unfolding. For every press conference and interview of emergency officials there were a dozen weather professionals standing in high winds and surging surf. There was the repetition of vagaries and empty speculations.
Still, that isn’t really the point. Television could have spent many more hours instructing the public about ways in which they could be prepared at home for the consequences of the event, or how we can reach out to our community to help those displaced and/or suffering. Television news could have been better at discussing the predictions of specific flood zones and power outages, and the rest. (Maybe it would have been better, but that’s still missing the point.) The nature of television is the spectacle. It’s the imagistic nature of the medium that drives the narrative towards the spectacular and exciting. More press conferences and instructive or explanatory journalism would go against the grain of the medium, so to speak. I suppose the best case scenario would be some form of entertaining, highly imagistic treatment of contingency planning and the rest. The Sesame Street treatment, if you will. In the long term, the effect of television, regardless of the content, is to trivialize and blunt all discourse, but at the same time we might use it better if its such an important part of our communication environment.
I would propose that the greatest benefit that television provides in a situation like Irene is the fact that it centers people in one location, indoors. HBO, in this respect, is of equal value to the public safety as is CNN. It’s entirely possible that playing the Super Bowl during a hurricane would be just as effective at saving lives as all the news coverage we had on the air.
I made the point that on 9/11 I saw the towers burning in person, watched them fall on television, and then spent many days in my Brooklyn apartment listening to the radio for information. On 3/11 of this year, I felt the earthquake that prompted the Japanese tsunami that I watched on my cell phone television, and then listened to the radio for information for days. Television creates spectacle and reduces events to a sort of mythological narrative built around imagistic impressions, shadows that remain with us forever. Radio has an ear bias and as such relies on language to do its business. The nature of language is to provoke and react. Participating in its aural environment, one becomes plugged into the discourse directly and completely. Rather than the language of the image, of impression, favored by television, radio’s language is speech. Spoken language is more precise than the image. A picture is worth a thousand words only if efficiency is favored over accuracy. In fact, 1000 words convey far more information than a single picture. When pictures are set in motion, and highly edited, they are even more fleeting and incomplete.
So, thank goodness there weren’t more deaths. Thank goodness the destruction was limited. Thank goodness the government was proactive and it looks like they will therefore be highly effective in cleaning up and recovering from the event, and they’ll be in a position to help people in need. Television was an effective early warning siren that most certainly played a role in saving lives, even if its true that the Super Bowl would have been as effective as all the storm coverage. For my part, radio is a far superior medium in these situations and its likely that various Internet and social media sites were more effective as well. Put them all together and we get the results we see before us. In that respect, television is a convenient target where a larger agenda is present. I share that agenda (deemphasizing and marginalizing the importance of TV in our culture), and so I write about its limitations where people are quick to jump to its defense.