Company Loves Misery

Roger Edwards

DISCLAIMER: These opinions are mine only, and do not represent my unnamed employer or anyone else in particular. If you have problems with what I am saying, address them directly to me, not my co-workers, supervisors, friends, relatives or neighbors...none of whom have any control over what I write on my own time and equipment (re: First Amendment).

DISASTER COVERAGE FOR FUN AND PROFIT

Consider this pattern, which repeats itself reliably in the wake of natural disasters. Within scant hours after a tornado or hurricane, a cavalcade of TV film crews and newspaper shutterbugs descends upon the scene of calamity and woe. Anymore, many media crews ride out a hurricane -- as if they are immune to both the physical laws of nature and evacuation laws of cities and counties -- just to capture that thrilling and highly marketable shot of a gas station flying apart, or to be "first on the scene" to record the devastation. Why? Money, money, money. What else?

In this era of shrunken attention spans, instant gratification and "Extreme sells!", the for-profit media does this almost without inhibition. Crews flock like cockroaches to hours-old paths of destruction, filming away amidst the lingering scent of shredded trees and the despondent wails of injured residents. The example which follows is not an isolated incident...

On 3 May 1999, the same evening as the killer tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, another violent and deadly tornado struck some of the Wichita KS metro area, including parts of Haysville. Julie Lynch, a professional photojournalist with UN4SCENE, relayed to me this ghastly example of media behavior that night:

    The small suburban city had been ravaged by an F4 following OKC's F5, and there, in the heaps of mangled homes once cherished, stood the media. Emergency workers still desperately pushed themselves to locate and preserve lives of those still trapped, all the while, an unnamed media reporter and handy cameraman filming a child's arm waving from beneath the crumbled remains of her bedroom. Being the spry Irish lass that I am, I climbed to the site, yanked the cameraman's gear and began pulling debris off the child. I was filled with rage and disbelief at the inhumaneness of the act and of course, let the Irish charm stream from my lips to the crew of two. As far as the condition of the child, yes, she was hurt and had 48 stitches as I recall from debris and such. Hopefully, she never knew that the crew was filming her in her suffering state and therefore it did not add insult to injury.

In the name of news, it is fashionable to peddle others' misery in print and lure viewers to the screen to marvel at others' misfortune. Many members of the media who have been handed such grim assignments -- the camera crew and reporters -- have been left humbled and scarred by the experience. The morons whom Julie encountered obviously represent a colder, more sinister element that (I hope!) is a small subset of the media, but still, a subset which stains the rest of the profession in a morbid shade of crimson. These ethical dilemmas are of no concern to producers if the ratings are high, or to the editors if the front-page photo of a gravely wounded baby is a real "grabber." In fact, sometimes the reporter becomes the story -- violating a basic ethical no-no taught in every journalism school -- when the editor or producer decides to do a piece on what the reporter has endured in covering the event! Oh, please...

Granted, publicity of storm effects has good side effects, even if by accident: increased donations to disaster relief efforts, and much-needed reminders to a generally apathetic public of our vulnerability to the vagaries of nature. But when it becomes old news in a day or two, when the victims lose their relevance to the rest of the world, the roaches scurry back behind the walls of newsrooms to await another feast amidst the blood of human casualty.

"WALLY WEATHERMAN SAVED MY LIFE!"

If just one despondent woman can be filmed in tattered clothing, standing amidst the steaming rubble of her house, holding her baby and, through a flood of tears, announcing that Wally Weatherman "saved my life," a TV station has a gold mine of a promo to use in self-righteous ads for years to come. It has happened right here in central Oklahoma several times, from the Edmond tornado of 8 May 1986 to the 3 May 1999 outbreak. How much of this shameless chest-thumping, at the expense of another and without compensation to her, is to hype the station's ability to "keep you advised," or to lure you off the competitor for the almighty ad dollar?

The common drug dealer is a valid analog here. As illegal drug runners enable the addicts, the media showcases human suffering for the mass audience. The media (drug dealer) can flippantly rationalize its role by claiming, "this is what the viewers/readers (drug users) want." Sell the addicted their fix and keep them hooked -- consequences be damned. What sort of example does this set?

To regain a measure of professional credibility, the media must acknowledge its shortcoming here, and cut back on its commercialized glorification of death and destruction. There is much to gain from taking the high road with this, even if it means somewhat arrogantly comparing one's virtues to the competition in order to motivate more ethical behavior by others. Coverage of storm damage is as good of a place to begin as any. But is it fair for the media (drug dealer) to shoulder all the responsibility for the market demand (drug problem)? What about the user, the addict, the consumer of gratuitous images of devastation? What about the readers and viewers -- all of us?

STORM DAMAGE AS A SPECTATOR SPORT (Get your cold beer here!)

Consider another virtually inevitable pattern. Following the sorry example of "them tee-vee fellers," lines of civilian gawkers hit the roadways leading into damage areas, home camcorders and throw-away cameras pointed toward the rubble. The people who once lived and worked under the shingles and boards then become monkeys in a zoo cage, on display for the amusement of the unscathed -- and once out of sight, just as disposable as the little plastic cameras which captured their misfortune on film. The extra traffic slows down or blocks utility workers, cleanup crews and law enforcement personnel. If police have not cordoned off the area yet, the scene could get ugly, perhaps violent, as people combing through the rubble for mementos of lost loved ones experience the honking, hooting, and camcorder-pointing of the inconsiderate louts who drive by. This isn't fabrication, but instead true stories told in resentment and anger, to me and to other "formal" damage surveyors, by storm victims at several damage scenes. Even if the area has been sealed off, onlookers create traffic jams and exhibit their buffoonery from a distance. Such did the throng that I saw lining a state road within two to three miles south of Spencer, SD -- camcorders, binoculars and beer in hand -- during a survey of a town that was almost obliterated by an F4 tornado the evening before.

Morbid curiosity is a primal trait, a facet of the human mindset well-documented by psychologists worldwide and apparently rooted in the early development or creation of our species. But must we necessarily stoop to our ancestors' primitivity? What consolation is outsiders' curiosity to those who are hauled away by ambulance from the crash scenes which inconsiderate motorists slow down to watch, or to the residents of obliterated homes which gawkers go out of their way to see?

IF IN DOUBT, STAY OUT

One should not stroll or drive casually into damage areas snapping pictures, as leering tourists in some peep show of destruction. It is rude, invasive, intrusive and unethical to barge into damage areas and indiscriminately aim a camera at the shattered remains of the homes, businesses and lives of real people -- even if one is a storm chaser, a media member, or an "official" of any kind.

Even when allowed into a damage area for news gathering, photography or formal damage survey purposes, there are overriding responsibilities. Law enforcement must be consulted and obeyed. If allowed into the damage area, media and official surveyors alike are obligated by compassion and ethics to use tact, sincerely express concern, get permission for any images to be taken on private property, and offer at least a token of assistance. If the answer is "no," accept it and move on. One may be surprised, though, at how willing many storm victims are to discuss their damage and experiences, and to allow photogaphy, if they have not been either besieged by gawkers or repulsed at microphones shoved at their faces from reporters. Caretakers of the private property where I shot Hurricane Andrew damage slides gladly permitted and invited me to do so; a few even used dupes of the slides to support insurance claims. This was a surprising but beneficial aspect to the photography; and their descriptions of the "before" state of the properties allowed me to better assess the nature of the damage. In all my survey experience, a polite request to photograph a specific damage example (without people in the picture) never has been denied -- not even in Miami! However, the wishes of people who do not want photos or video taken of their rubble must be respected courteously.

Do credentials help in gaining access? Certainly. Do I have an "unfair" advantage in possessing credentials which aid entry? Absolutely not. Don't begrudge NWS meteorologists, wind engineers and other "qualified" damage surveyors, emergency management personnel and law enforcers who have access. Instead, if you want credentials, earn them. Otherwise, stay out, let the surveys happen and the recovery occur, and be glad to have not aggravated the problem.

HOW TO CONTRIBUTE POSITIVELY

If interested in damage survey work as a scientific or community service, and to learn, one may volunteer with local emergency management officials and the nearest NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM) to assist on an as-needed basis. It helps to learn about the F scale, how it is applied and how it can fail or be misused (Doswell and Burgess 1988), and to gain experience alongside seasoned damage analysis experts. The NWS doesn't have budget money to send surveyors out on most events -- not even most tornadoes; and they may find contributed damage information very helpful in rating a storm. Again, the WCM can direct one to resources on damage rating and analysis, which should be in the library collections of every NWS office.

Want to learn more? There are some good online resources as well, including a short damage survey volunteer guide by Sam Barricklow. For a thorough overview of lessons learned from damage assessment, see Marshall 1993. Doswell and Brooks 2001 have recently posted a formal article on tornado preparedness from the perspective of shelters and protection, using 3 May 1999 as a basis. In February 1998, Greg Harmon (NWS FSD) and I gave a seminar and exercise at a Lubbock severe storms conference, using the Spencer SD (30 May 98) tornado event to learn about rating specific kinds of damage. Meteorologist and engineer Tim Marshall has an online case study of atypical tornado damage patterns which provides valuable insight into some of the important subtleties involved. For learning about damage of a larger spatial scope, check out his Hurricane Andrew damage survey results as well. Texas Tech University's wind engineering center has a listing of their damage surveys online. Erik Rasmussen and Casey Crosbie wrote an informal article on tornado damage assessment in V.O.R.T.EX.. On a more personal level, WCM Ernest Goestch of the Lincoln IL NWS office has posted a well-written essay on the meaning of surveying storm damage.

In conclusion, there is a valuable place for analytic but compassionate damage assessment in the fields of meteorology, emergency management, risk reduction, and engineering. For many mambers of the for-profit media, the place to be is back in a freshman journalistic ethics class. There is also a place for common gawkers -- on the couch at home, enraptured as usual by the latest rerun of Jerry Springer.


"Get the widow on the set. We love dirty laundry. Kick 'em when they're up, kick 'em when they're down."

    -- Don Henley

Thanks to Shannon Key Vasquez, Julie Lynch and Chris Novy for insightful comments and/or ideas.

REFERENCES

Doswell, C.A. III, and H.E. Brooks, 2001: Lessons learned from the damage produced by the tornadoes of 3 May 1999. Wea. Forecasting, in review.

_____, and D.W. Burgess, 1988: On some issues of United States tornado climatology. Mon. Wea. Rev., 116, 495-501.

Marshall, T.P., 1993: Lessons learned from analyzing tornado damage. The Tornado: Its Structure, Dynamics, Prediction and Hazards, Geophys. Monogr. 79, C. Church, Ed., Amer. Geophys. Union, 495-499.

Back to Roger's Rants Online Editorials

Roger's SkyPix Photo Gallery

Roger Edwards Home Page