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article imageHow the media is a 'disaster' in reporting disaster news

By Carol Forsloff     Feb 10, 2010 in World
Journalists can affect readers' perception of events. One commentator says the media focus on the negative, like looters, does a disservice to people in need.
In a lengthy article posted just days ago in the Nieman Watchdog, Rebecca Solnit of TomDispatch.com points out how much more important human life is than property. Those who suffer in disasters are deserving of compassion and understanding. When they are seen taking necessary supplies to save their lives, why does the media emphasize looting and not the problems that caused them to do that?
Solnit argues the real perpetrators of hurt and harm are those who treat sufferers as criminals, focusing on problems to the extent that resources become shifted to patrolling areas where there's said to be trouble as opposed to providing aid.
Pictures are shown on television and in newspapers with captions discussing looting, an example Solnit uses to prove her point is an image of a Haitian man face down on the sidewalk with a policeman tying him up for the crime of stealing evaporated milk.
Solnit then gives other examples where the media has focused on "looting" and not on the specific needs of earthquake victims. She asks the question why the focus is on property and not on human life. She asks her readers just what they would do if they lost their homes and all possessions, had no money and credit cards were worthless.
She asks what people should do when there are no businesses from which you can buy and nothing to eat or drink in the rubble of wherever one might be at the time.. If someone is hungry and thirsty and tired, will one not grab whatever is there? She asks of her readers, "Jut what would you do?"
Solnit has covered disasters before and interviewed disaster victims. She has written articles and even a book on the subject.. She emphasizes she doesn't believe in "looting,"or what she calls "stealing" which she says is a much better word to describe intentional theft outside crises, but believes the word "looting" should be banished from the English language because it has been so misused.
Words can kill, she reminds readers; then gives examples of how this is done. Words provide the target for emphasis in written or oral material and can distort perception of those who read or listen to them, so that the attention is on the negative behavior and not on the basic needs of the people involved. She goes on to explain how taking things you don't need is stealing for certain, but that experts who have studied disaster victims note most of these people don't take things they don't need. Their focus is not on personal gain but getting things they need for survival.
In Haiti, as Solnit reports, people share what they have; and in some places crime actually drops in the wake of a disaster. Still, Solnit explains, the media remain fixated on property and in a fashion that incites hostility toward the sufferers.
The media uses words that promote hostility and bad feelings, according to Solnit. For example the media refers to people who are running for supplies as "stampeding" and to those desperately in a hurry for supplies as behaviors that "risk sparking chaos" This type of language turns many people away from the giving and more towards the worries about violence and other bad things.
What about New Orleans? Again she discusses how people got so worked up over people stealing television sets and other supplies, a group of white men took up guns and began hunting down looters and shot a number of them, many of whom were simply getting supplies to help them get through the storm..
During Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, MSNBC reported how "at a Walgreen’s drug store in the French Quarter, people were running out with grocery baskets and coolers full of soft drinks, chips and diapers."
Would this not be things people would need? The paragraph reveals the press' emphasis also, as Solnit describes is happening in Haiti. Weren't readers and listeners of the news negatively affected by seeing and hearing about people looting in New Orleans?
On TomDispatch.com, Solnit argues "words can kill". The directive goes to the heart of media coverage but also helps readers recognize themselves how words must be used with great caution when talking about suffering folk.
In the meantime, information on the needs of the Haitians right now, which readers can find online, the American Red Cross, can be found here.
More about Earthquake haiti, Hurricane Katrina, Disaster
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