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Televised Disaster: Our Fascination With Catastrophes

Centered on grief and fear, do news reports also coordinate positive emotions?

Key points

  • The 24/7 news cycle now enables viewers to immerse themselves in major societal and environmental events as they unfold.
  • Large-scale disasters are key examples of this pattern. Watching them is often a public expectation.
  • Televised reports can help viewers express specific emotions, watch heroic acts, and envision community connections.

January 17, 1991, was the turning point. A group of CNN reporters were huddled in a Baghdad hotel, debating whether to stay or leave, when the American bombing of Iraq began. Some months before, their news organization had bargained with the Iraqis for a communication line out of the country. Linked by satellites, the resulting “live” reports streamed across the globe. 24/7 news, centered on video, became a mainstay of public culture.

People’s initial fascination with the sights and sounds of that war has morphed into an expectation that there should be instantaneous, on-the-ground coverage of most major public events. Bombings of public buildings, school shootings, and riots are examples. We expect to “be there,” not as endangered physical beings but rather as media-based spectators, who receive play-by-play accounts of the developing story. Sometimes, those events may take months to unfold, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes clear. If the story is big enough, the reporters—and their audience—will stay.

Add to this list weather emergencies. At the time of this writing, Hurricane Ian is making its way from Puerto Rico into Florida and the Carolinas. Television viewers have been able to follow those events courtesy of cable broadcasters, especially The Weather Channel. Established in 1982, that channel fought against skepticism, even ridicule, during its early years. Would people really want 24/7 coverage of weather events, especially those from locales quite distant from their homes? The answer was “yes.” As with other news, we expect to be in the thick of things, seeing windblown reporters in hip boots. There should be footage of uprooted trees, demolished buildings, floating cars, and stranded people and pets carried to safety.

At some level, do people find satisfaction in these scenes of human misery and environmental degradation? If so, why?

I must emphasize immediately that I’m not writing here about the individuals who are involved directly in these terrible events—invasions, bombings, hurricanes, and the like. Psychological studies of disasters stress both their immediate and long-term effects on persons. Survivors bear physical and psychological scars, sometimes for all their lives. They are haunted by what they have seen; they bear guilt for having survived when others have not.

The rest of us exist at different points on what I’ll call the “circle of involvement.” Some have friends and family who are in the path of the storm. Some, and this includes a vast number, are unsure whether the disaster will reach their locale. Anxiously, they watch to see where the invading armies are situated, where the weather maps project the advancing storm.

Farther away, most of us know that the disaster will not reach us, except through the ripple effects of gasoline shortages, product delays, disrupted travel plans, and the like. Still, we watch. What is happening to these “people like us”? Should we do anything to help them?

These are feelings we should have. And television is the most accessible vehicle for maintaining that sense of connection. However, I maintain below that our interest in watching the spectacle of destruction is perhaps a less noble commitment. Many of us want to “see” a building at the instant of its demolition or a family trapped on the roof of a flooded house. Why is that? Consider the following reasons.

Televised disasters help us process fundamental emotions

According to Aristotle’s famous theory of tragedy, audiences derive a certain satisfaction from feeling emotions like pity and fear. Watching some protagonist—for the Greeks, a prominent, excessively proud and aspiring one—trapped in circumstances beyond their control, people feel sadness in a purified, protected way. Those emotions having been purged, they leave the theater knowing that although the protagonist died, they have a renewed chance to live.

Of course, televised disasters involve real people, not dramatic characters. And they usually feature ordinary individuals much like the viewers. Still, the productions invite our pity, as those nameless protagonists struggle with powerful forces. We find inspiration in their efforts to escape their fate and reestablish their lives. We wonder how we would confront such challenges. We feel fortunate to have escaped the difficulties they now endure.

Such disasters break the spell of ordinariness

Most of us find ourselves trapped in a set of daily routines. At best, we accept those responsibilities gracefully. Going to work, raising kids, cleaning the house, and so forth are the costs of a stable, respectable existence.

But who doesn’t wish for something more exciting? In that light, culture purveyors provide us with opportunities for heightened emotion. This weekend our favorite sports team is playing. Thursday evening is an anticipated television program. Concerts, movies, festivals, vacations, and lotteries: all are occasions to spice things up.

Pleasing as these activities may be, they also can become routine. And clearly, we control our participation in them. By contrast, disasters represent complete ruptures with ordinary affairs. Prevailing customs stop, as do usual notions of space and time. Pointedly, these are not occasions of our choosing. They are things that happen to us.

Again, for persons trapped in the crush of political or environmental events, this is a crisis of extreme proportions. For the rest of us, it is an odd, “distanced” break from what we usually do. By choice, we can tune in to see how those desperate people are faring. When we’ve had enough, we can change channels or do something else. Whatever our choices, the televised crisis inevitably makes us think about our own lives, if only to count our blessings. Sometimes, we ask ourselves: “Life is precious and unpredictable. Should we continue to live as we do now?” More expansively, we ponder how to help those people so afflicted.

These events show people at their best

If televised disasters portrayed only the injured and dispossessed, that would be dispiriting. Instead, and like all human dramas, they have their heroes, villains, and fools. Inevitably, we see some hapless person who drove their car down a flooded street and had to be rescued. We criticize some politician—or government agency—whose decisions exacerbated the crisis or who was slow to respond.

Mostly, though, we center our attention on valiant local people—police officers, firefighters, medical personnel, and other first responders—who race toward the danger zone as others flee. Most inspiring of all are the non-officials, ordinary citizens who get in their trucks and boats and bring others to safety. Even reporters can seem noble if they enter situations of extreme danger.

Inevitably, the lesson of these terrible times resounds: “We will move past these circumstances and rebuild our lives.” Who does not find inspiration in that?

Disasters both reveal and build community

Rightly or not, American culture celebrates the idea that individuals should look out for themselves and their families. Commonly, people guard their own property; neighbors are not that neighborly.

Disasters change that. They bring people out into the streets. Families exchange services, opening their homes to others and helping with cleanup. The elderly and disabled are special sources of concern. “Has anyone talked to Mrs. Edwards? Does she have someone taking care of her?”

Even outsiders, including television viewers, feel connected. The governor, and perhaps the president, come to the site. National media is there. First responders from other states rush in. Again, the point is plain: These are people like all of us. They are in serious jeopardy. Their survival depends not only on their own efforts but also on the concerted support of the rest of us.

That sense of common commitment is refreshing to a population so often immersed in selfish endeavors.

We enjoy the splendor of the production

We who view disasters from afar cannot help but experience them as television programs. Like any audience, we want to see stimulating sights and hear heartfelt commentary. Let us have a good story. A little repetition of the most exciting scenes is acceptable; too much is not. We expect reporters—essentially, our leading actors—to be highly engaged, energetic, and good-looking. When the camera turns to them, they should be able to speak effortlessly, without dithering.

More than that, we revel in the technical qualities of the broadcast. Camera work, weather maps, and other graphics get better each year. Projections are more detailed and far-reaching. Expert commentators assemble magically, via split-screen. We absorb the presentations, watching also for slip-ups and contradictions. In hindsight, we assess. Did they exaggerate the dangers to get us to watch? Were their predictions correct? Did they hype their show, perhaps with claims of “breaking news” or “disturbing images” that didn’t materialize?

In the end, we want these mediators to guide us through the crisis to a satisfying conclusion. Let us know that the endangered people will get through this. Comfort the rest of us with assurances that we are compassionate people who care about others. Coordinate our sadness and move us to happier times.

References

Leyda, J. and D. Negra, eds. (2015). Extreme Weather and Global Media. London: Routledge.

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