Allie Long

The Category Four Schadenfreude in the Hurricane Harvey Coverage

My digestion of the coverage of Hurricane Harvey highlighted something galling. The gale-forced empathy beaming from those who report on it is clear to see.

 

I’ve heard it argued that natural disasters are among the few events that warrant 24/7 news coverage. More than anywhere else, that claim feigns substantiation in the eyes of the anchors themselves, poorly masking their excitement with over-the-top sympathy.

Their responses to Hurricane Harvey echo those to the election. Who had time to think about the implications of a Trump presidency when the election results were so “unpresidented” that they necessitated fascination-induced analysis?

The media are tasked with relaying the grimness of Harvey to us, but instead of leaving the disaster as it is, they conclude by telling us how much worse it could get as if they’re excited at the prospect — as if to say, “Now this is what we were trained to cover.”

On MSNBC, the talk of “50 inches of rain” and “broken records” is a bit too detached for my taste, complete with emphatically stating how long Harvey’s victims could be homeless.

On the other end of the spectrum are the reporters in the field, hassling locals knee-deep in floodwater with questions like, “Where are you going to go?” “How long do you think you’ll be without a home?” and the ever-maddening, “How are you holding up?” only to respond with asinine things like, “Wow, and it could be even longer than that.” Then, they turn to the anchors in the studio to talk about the bravery and strength of those same people as if we should find comfort in other people’s misfortunes when we can be inspired by them. The refrain seems to be, “Now this is America,” in the face of compassionate acts in times of disaster.

They turn to the anchors in the studio to talk about the bravery and strength of those same people as if we should find comfort in other people’s misfortunes when we can be inspired by them. The refrain seems to be, “Now this is America,” in the face of compassionate acts in times of disaster.

All of this is evident after just five minutes of viewing any news channel, but that’s not to say the coverage of Harvey shouldn’t be sympathetic. It just shouldn’t be sympathetic for the benefit of anchors and their audiences. It also isn’t to say that meteorologists shouldn’t take time to break down how climate change may or may not play into Harvey’s magnitude and, by extension, that pundits shouldn’t discuss the politics of climate change. But no one should catastrophize just to be provocative.

Since Trump took Harvey as an opportunity to add to his presidential landfill (pardoning Arpaio, the transgender military ban, and ousting Sebastian Gorka), an added unsavory attribute of the media reared its ugly head. It is played to the tune of, “Trump didn’t think we’d cover this, but we, the self-righteous media, won’t let him slide under the radar this time.”

They act as though they’re doing us a favor by doing their job. Considering they rework and rehash the same story for a week, I guess it is amazing they juggled multiple stories at once in this instance, but that doesn’t erase the holier-than-thou pettiness of acting like not letting Trump’s newest disasters go unnoticed is some great service to the public. Yes, we need to know these things, but how can someone expect praise for overindulging in certain topics at the expense of others of equal importance? Houston’s condition would be no different if they retired from discussing record-breaking flooding for a couple of hours.

It’s no secret that the media is preoccupied with the worst possible outcomes, but this is cast in a particularly unflattering light when people’s lives are at stake. Updates on Harvey are needed and welcome, but conjecture at the expense of victims and for the purpose of fearmongering is not, even if that is the media’s status quo.

We should demand more from them.

Beating the dead horse of the same story will not restore people’s faith in the media. When reporters reach a story’s seafloor, it might be time to consider breadth of coverage over depth.

 

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