Storms are compelling to watch, especially from a safe distance where one does not have to endure the storm’s wrath and suffer the consequences.
In regards to the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean and the US, there is something bazaar in seeing TV reporters wading hip-deep in storm water or standing out of doors clutching their hats while breathlessly reporting on a hurricane that either has not yet arrived or has already dissipated or moved on.
This kind of journalistic exercise is so pointless it is difficult to fathom; it is virtual disaster tourism for the dry, warm, safe and well fed, offering them sightseeing tours through the devastation and hardships of others.
I am not sure how much difference it made to the people of Houston in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey, but the streets of Houston under water could not compete for media attention with the new show provided by the destructive force of Irma.
Although the real daunting crisis was really just beginning for the people of Houston from a media perspective, they were already yesterday’s news.
A hurricane does not deliver destruction and death in the same way that it is wrought by a despot, an invading army or gang of marauding thugs, where bearing witness is important in understanding the nature of the situation, in demonstrating the moral imperative of coming to peoples’ aid and holding those responsible to account.
Hurricanes are a primordial force of nature; powerful, devastating and fatal yet blameless, where ultimately it is more important to bring aid than to bear witness.
There is no need for graphic reporting to understand the perils of a category 5 hurricane.
The media loves hurricanes because they are naturally endowed with the primary elements of compelling drama; they provide forewarning, which allows for the anticipation and dramatic build-up. Then there is the central dramatic action of the storm’s arrival and of course the life-changing aftermath.
However, to take this analogy a little further, the storm is the catalyst but the real story, the human story is the aftermath and the media’s interest ends where the real story begins.
The real story is in the devastating toll a storm takes on communities and individuals and no matter how much assistance is provided the lives of individuals and families are uprooted and irreparably changed. However, this situation does not offer any spectacular video footage; it is not as gripping as uprooted trees, raised roofs, overturned vehicles and the submerged streets. though it is the direct outcome of those events.
The primary function of television news media is to fill empty space, ideally with noise and spectacle. News media is now, in large part, a subgenre of reality television and like reality TV; visual news media has become voyeuristic and exploitive, less real than surreal.
A little closer to home for us recently, forest fires like storms also offer spectacular video footage.
The ravages of fire provide the spectacle of smoke and flames, of homes consumed in a blaze and others under imminent threat while the mandatory evacuation is an exodus rendered biblical by the relentless reiterations of the media, who, once again, when the real story begins in the aftermath of the visual fanfare, like a storm they have already moved on.