Since summer crept into fall, catastrophe has washed into Thailand. The 2011 monsoon season saw major floods in the country starting in July, spreading slowly but steadily throughout the nation. However, with a death toll of only around 500 over the course of a few months, this sluggish news story has not caught traction in international media until recently.
Looking at the year in disasters, from anomalies like Hurricane Irene to international catastrophes like the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, it is easy see why a regular rainy season gone wrong may have slipped under the press’s radar. But the emerging coverage of Thailand’s floods shows that when the press goes fishing for stories in life’s more mediocre disasters, it often ends up stretching the truth and disenchanting the audience they are trying to engage.
Especially in a year where we have faced so many extremes, journalists may be hard-pressed to find the next big story. For instance, the Christian Science Monitor recently reported observing a British television reporter asking a group of Thai locals to pretend that they were having trouble crossing a water-covered alleyway even though in reality they were completely unconcerned about the water. Once the reporter was done with the scene he had just set up, the natives were allowed to go back to their own activities. Although this may seem innocuous enough, not only do these kinds of small “embellishments” add up to a larger, more muddled picture as the story progresses, but more importantly, they create a false sense of urgency for the audience where there is none.
Even if we disregard the journalistic ideals that such half-truths violate, such irresponsible journalism fundamentally disengages the reader. Audiences are already easily susceptible to “disaster fatigue," where they are desensitized to what they are seeing, hearing, or reading about natural disasters after being bombarded with so much information about them. For instance, in 2008, Americans donated only $12.1 million to the Myanmar Cyclone, which killed over 80,000 people. In contrast, in previous years, Americans had donated $1.92 billion to the 2004 East Asian Tsunami and over 5 billion to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when trouble hit closer to home.
Ironically, feeding our voracious appetite for exciting news also contributes to mass disaster fatigue. In an era of information-overload, it is not necessarily that we do not have the appetite for news, but simply that many times we fill ourselves up with empty carbs of information and are too quickly satisified before something that is truly of value has the opportunity to pop into our stream of consciousness.
In fact, the press, perhaps more than any other entity, is especially responsible for getting people “excited” about natural disasters. “Excitement” could simply be in an emotional, preparatory sense: For instance, media coverage of Hurricane Irene was international and overwhelming, as people watched New York brace for its first Hurricane in decades. Audiences were genuinely excited by the prospect of this rare attack on the American East Coast, as reports of the event being “overhyped” prove. Media attention could also foster excitement in the sense of urging people to action in the wake of a catastrophe such as the Japanese tsunami and earthquake. This kind of excitement is beneficial on both ends: The presses get more attention, and the victims get more donations. But as these examples illustrated, we tend only to gravitate naturally to these stories that hit close to extreme local anomalies (Irene) or danger (tsunami, earthquake, and ensuing nuclear crisis), and these disasters set the bar higher each time.
Thailand's floods are, in economic terms, extremely significant, based on the large amount of computer hardware manufacturing in the nation as well as the damage to buildings that this will ensue. But journalists sometimes try too hard to make the story more than it is, and this is not only irresponsible journalism, but it also puts people in danger when their audience is already on a precarious perch between caring just enough to donate and not caring at all. Knowing that we have a threshold for how much death and destruction we can take before we become overwhelmed, journalists fishing for a story further exacerbate the situation by fabricating conflict and lessening the impact true stories will have on audiences. Modern journalism is a constant, dangerous tug of war between truth and perspective, but in the end, fact should win out against pure fabrication, especially when human lives are at stake.
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