Media storm as hurricane smashes into Florida

Tears amid the rubble: The storm has flattened much of Baracoa, Cuba’s oldest town. © PA

Hurricane Matthew is the strongest storm to hit the US for 12 years. No wonder it is big news. But is it too big? There are worse natural disasters… only with less ‘exciting’ pictures.

Huge waves pounding the coastline. Flooding. Howling 145mph winds. Scores dead. Millions evacuated.

Meet Hurricane Matthew as it pummels the Caribbean and scythes its way across Florida. It has quickly become the leading story in America and across the world as the terrifying TV pictures dominate the airwaves.

People love a storm. This has deep evolutionary origins. Maria Konnikova, a psychologist, says watching a storm on TV while we sit safely in a warm room can ‘satisfy our inner risk-seeker without going into dangerous territory’. Some take this fascination to extremes and become storm chasers.

And storms provide the media with good stories. US newscasts have quadrupled the time they spend on weather and natural disaster stories since the early 1990s.

But environmentalist Rob Nixon finds this dispiriting. He says we have become ‘accustomed to conceiving of violence as immediate and explosive’. Images of ‘falling bodies, burning towers, exploding heads, avalanches, tornadoes and volcanoes’ have a ‘visceral, page-turning potency’. He wants to draw more attention to a concept he calls ‘slow violence’, exemplified by the negative side-effects of globalisation and consumerism.

Problems like loss of species, build-up of toxic waste, and greenhouse gas emissions are ‘cataclysmic’. They have contributed to climate change, resource reductions and even, in some cases, conflicts.

But they are ‘scientifically convoluted cataclysms in which casualties are postponed, often for generations’. Drawing attention to these trends is difficult because of our short-termism, self-interest and taste for the spectacular.

Similar patterns can be seen on other long-term issues. Some estimates suggest one in three women worldwide will experience violence at the hands of a male partner. Every year landmines kill between 15,000 and 20,000 people. Poverty, disease and famine affect millions. These stories are shocking — but rarely front page news.

Should the media cover these trends more?

Whirlwind of news

Some think so. Responsible journalists would report stories according to their importance. Journalists who play to the selfish instincts of their audience end up exaggerating some problems and downplaying others. This encourages ignorance, not education. The media should try to inform and influence opinion, not merely reflect it.

Foolish, respond others. Such a philosophy would drive away customers, putting media outlets out of business. Then they would not be able to report on anything. The news has to be exciting: it reflects drama, not merely worthiness. We know about many of these long-term problems already; sudden events are much more interesting.

You Decide

  1. Which would you rather read more about: the hurricane or the decline of species?
  2. Should the media make more effort to cover important long-term trends?

Activities

  1. Make a list of news stories you have heard or read about recently. Then make a list of news topics you would like to know more about. Discuss in pairs: how similar are your lists? What can you learn from them?
  2. Work in pairs. Create your own newspaper for an audience of your choice, covering at least five interesting stories. Discuss your choices, and the way you reported each story, as a class.

Some People Say...

“If an event is important, it is interesting.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does it matter what rich people who own newspapers and TV companies prioritise?
The way these stories are reported provides an insight into our human nature. The coverage this story is gaining reminds us that news stories are more powerful when they affect the audience directly. It also tells us that stories may have more power than others for primeval, not rational, reasons. This gives all of us more understanding of the workings of our subconscious.
I am not planning to be a journalist. Why does the media’s behaviour matter?
The media help to inform our opinion on the world around us, so people are likely to care most about stories that gain a lot of prominence. It also reflects the mood of the public — you can learn about the interests of people around you by following the media.

Word Watch

145mph
This was the speed of winds in Haiti; the US National Hurricane Centre predicted the same in Florida.
Scores
Last night at least 108 people had died in Haiti, with more casualties in the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
Millions
Two million were evacuated in Florida alone.
Evolutionary
Maria Konnikova argues that we did not evolve to minimise risk because the earliest humans faced constant danger. Taking risks may therefore have been vital for human survival — for example as it may have been the only way to get food.
Storm chasers
People who follow extreme weather events. They gain little more than an adrenaline rush and some good video footage for their trouble. See the third link under Become An Expert for more about them.
Quadrupled
According to news consultant Andrew Tyndall, who follows the content of broadcasts in the USA.
One in three
According to the State of the World’s Fathers Report and the campaign MenCare. In England and Wales, one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, according to an official crime survey.
Kill
According to the UN.

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