How not to cover disasters for TVBy Nestor U. Torre
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Whenever a typhoon, flood or other disaster strikes, we get disturbing and sometimes shocking lessons on how TV people should not cover those destructive and life-threatening news events. Instructively, this is true not just of local coverage, but also of the way that some TV people in the US dramatize or “pump up” the adrenaline or visual impact of storms and floods, like last month’s destructive typhoon.
To show how brave and selfless their field reporters and weather people were, US TV networks showed some of them practically tying themselves to the trunk of trees as they gaspingly reported on the gales and whirlwinds and torrential rains slapping them in the face and soaking them to the bone!
Why did they feel that televiewers had to be shown in great detail how strong and destructive the terror-typhoon was? Why did they have to offer themselves up as guinea pigs or sacrificial offerings at the altar of in-your-face, mega-reality TV news coverage?
It was also ironically instructive to see that, as the brave and daring and selfless TV reporters were risking their lives in the name of public service and you-are-there news coverage, nobody else was out in the flooded and howling streets—they were all seeking shelter somewhere, as all right-thinking people should! Enough said.
Some months ago, it was the turn of some local news anchors to lay their lives on the line in the name of instant, you-are-there disaster coverage. To their credit, however, they were more cautious than their gung-ho American counterparts: They made sure that their hair was wet from the rain, but they wisely got out of the gales’ direct line of fire. That’s more like it!
Of course, there’s something to be said for helping viewers experience “first-hand” the physical, tactile and emotional effects of a disaster in progress, the better for them to appreciate the gravity of its impact on the affected citizenry.
But, when the “selfless” coverage is obviously being done partially for effect, and to “out-dramatize” other TV stations’ more circumspect and objective coverage of the disaster, some TV people’s priorities are clearly out of whack.
Yes, typhoons and floods are major news events because they make so many people suffer, but reality is not the stuff of which palpitating melodrama is made, and its purveyors demean the public they profess to save when they exploit its misery.
The same caveats pretty much hold true for other kinds of disasters covered on TV, like earthquakes and fires: There is the temptation to scoop the competition by looking for “personalized” stories of pain, tragedy and loss.
The worst example of this was the coverage of an earthquake in the province years ago with the TV reporter interviewing a victim while she was still pinned down by a fallen girder.
He asked her all sorts of insensitive questions about how she felt, etc., when it was clear that she was seriously injured.
She politely answered his intrusive questions as best as she could, instead of pushing him away, as he deserved. We prayed that she would survive that traumatic experience—and that the interviewer would belatedly realize that, in trying to get a “scoop” interview, he had gone way out of line.
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