Monday, March 14, 2011

The Earth Moves and the global media is hooked on Disaster Porn

I have blogged on the subject of Earthquakes a few times over the years, the last time was during the General election last year. The fact is that several major cities: San Francisco, Istanbul and of course Tokyo, stand in areas of occasionally severe seismic activity. In fact the earthquake that hit Japan was not the one that they expected: along the Kanto fault beneath the City of Tokyo itself, but rather along the plate boundary, somewhat out to sea from the Japanese archipelago. Nevertheless the 'quake when it hit was huge: probably the largest in recorded Japanese history, a possible 9.0 on the Richter scale. As I feared in May, the devastation- largely caused by the tsunami that followed the earthquake itself- has indeed dominated the news agenda. In fact the wall-to-wall coverage of dramatic footage: the quake, the tsunami, the aftermath, and now the explosions at the nuclear stations that have been wrecked by the catastrophe has formed a weird kind of disaster porn.

It is impossible to draw too many conclusions from this event- dramatic in scale though it is. After the Christchurch 'quake, the Sendai 'quake may not be the last: some seismologists predict a cluster of moderate to severe quakes all around the "ring of fire". So as Los Angeles and San Francisco await another "big one", it may be that the horrid sights of Sendai may yet be repeated on the other side of the Pacific. Yet the time scale of seismic activity is not yet understood- we already know what is likely, but not when it is likely to happen.

For me, the media- especially television- coverage has hidden more than it has revealed. Two minute interviews can barely scratch the surface, especially when both TV and print media seem to assume that no one has passed basic geography, so they have to explain plate tectonics before establishing information on more specific issues. The point is that even the so-called "educated" newspapers assume that few of their readers have even basic knowledge. The result is that they concentrate on the striking image, leavened with human interest stories of dramatic rescue or tragic loss. Paradoxically the big picture itself is lost in the rush to draw short term conclusions based on simple but powerful images. The crisis at the nuclear stations is clearly severe, and will have a long term impact on Japanese demand for energy in the international market, but the explosions, though dramatic, may not tell the whole story: the wholesale abandonment of nuclear power by states not in seismic zones may not be the right lesson to draw. Yet the media will focus on the emotional impact of the images, and doubtless create the sum of all our fears from the result.

An Earthquake is an event outside of human control- yet the media had already abandoned the Libyan revolution- currently being crushed by the tyrant Gadaffi. The attention span of television these days seems to be about 10 days and despite being an avoidable act of evil, the energy of the media for the Libyan story was already dissipated. Of course the murder by Gadaffi's goons of various journalists may have put them off a bit- but all the more reason to report the plight of those in the path of the murderers, one might have thought. Likewise the growing crisis in Russia might have merited some attention, but again the story is too complicated to convey in simple images and direct "human interest" stories.

I expect that the media will hang around Japan for a few more days, and then, subject to no further disaster, they will fold their tents and decamp to some other place of simple images. Meanwhile, the global public will have feasted on the kind of imagery that is familiar from so many disaster movies and the Japanese will return to burying their dead without the high intensity lamps of the cameras upon them.

The Day Today no longer seem quite so funny.

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