What disaster news does to us
On the moral toll of watching a calamity unfold
Half the state of the Florida is without power. At least eight people are dead. Every school and college in the state is closed. It's predicted that Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in the United States over the weekend, will cost some $50 billion in damages to homes, businesses, crops, and personal property. The evacuation was the largest in the state's history, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded, fighting for space in improvised shoulder lanes on northbound expressways as traffic backed up all the way to Atlanta and beyond.
Yet it is hard to avoid the sense that for some people the scale of the destruction in the wake of Irma has proved insufficient, even disappointing.
Things could have been much worse, of course, and it is a mercy that the storm's force was lessened somewhat before it reached the U.S. (If only the people of the Caribbean and the West Indies had been so fortunate.) Hurricane Katrina, by comparison, claimed nearly 2,000 lives and was the costliest weather event in the history of this country. As the long, slow work of rebuilding commences, we should be feeling slightly relieved.
But this does not seem to be true of media outlets for whom more bodies, more shots of people waist-deep in filthy water, or more looters being shot, more families struggling to find food and clean water, more agony, more misery, more brutality from the blind forces of creation, means more clicks or views or "engagements" — and thus more money.
How should those of us who write or edit for a living feel about this? This is an issue that comes up whenever there is a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Hurricanes and bombings and military assaults are inarguably big news, the more deadly and destructive the newsier, which is to say, the better for those charged with reporting and commenting on them. Not to report out of some kind of theoretical respect for those affected would be absurd. The question of how to resolve the tension between callous quasi-delight in human immiseration and the journalistic enterprise ends up being largely one of taste — or rather tastefulness.
We are all familiar with the opinion writers for whom any terrorist attack in Europe is ipso facto an argument against immigration, who knock over tables in attempt to be the first person to tweet some variation of "I bet the guy wasn't named Jean-Pierre"; for whom any shooting at a mall or a school is a made-to-order brief for gun control and any story related to weather — a string of hot days, an uptick in the number of thunderstorms, a blizzard, a flood — is an excuse to make finger-wagging tautological arguments about climate change. These are usually silly pieces, but one can see the point of them: It's hard to make an argument that something is bad if the only evidence you are permitted to use is of the innocuous wonky variety.
It is the ordinary workaday coverage of these events that tends to be more offensive than the not-so-hot takes. Much of the television reporting on Irma is a case in point. The tone of the 24/7 cable coverage was barbarous and moronic, presenting the storm as a kind of real-life action film, one minute of which viewers would not want to miss lest they be spared some fresh prospect of human misery or hitherto-unglimpsed vista of nature at her most callous and indifferent. Ditto the perpetually live-updating pages from newspapers featuring the latest distress-laden GIFs of people flagging down helicopters from their roofs or rowing boats down suburban streets and tweets with unconfirmed details about further injuries. "Watch timelapse video of Hurricane Irma's destruction in Miami," The Washington Post bids me. I think I'll pass, thanks.
But it would be far too easy to lay the blame for all this with the media. If everybody changed the channel or closed the tab, none of this would be here.
The truth is that at some level we are all fascinated by the suffering of others. Who has not heard in the back of his head that grotesque nagging little voice of anti-hope, wishing that it will be a Category 5 after all? We are, nearly all of us, disappointed just slightly when things turn out to be better than we had expected — which is to say, better than initial reports had prepared us to imagine they might be. This is why people read true crime, why stopped cars on the side of the road slow down traffic, why there is always some bystander interviewed on CNN who only arrived on the scene of a bridge collapse due to morbid curiosity. It is the main lesson I took away from Sept. 11, my chief memory of which is my homeroom teacher telling us how much she looked forward to the prospect of going home and watching television "past midnight."
Perhaps it is because we have seen too many films or played too many video games or simply because we are socially and geographically removed from the objects of our fascination that we relish these chances to soak up evil. But I doubt it. I think it's something older and more wicked, something to which the entertainment industry caters rather than an appetite that it has created. In other words, I suspect that we like watching and reading about bad things — luxuriating in despair — because we are, most of us, pretty bad.
I'm not sure there's an easy solution for that.