The Media Learns from Disasters, but We Do Not

By | September 26, 2017

Guest post by Robert Ficociello and Robert Bell

Two recent news articles about hurricanes Harvey and Irma, one from the LA Times and another from Politico, offered us an opportunity to compare some of our conclusions in America’s Disaster Culture to the tragic unfolding aftermath of these two storms. One of our suggestions in the book calls for a closer attention to how natural disasters are discussed—its language—in the media, who dominates the production of disaster narratives, and when does the narrative get finalized.

In terms of disaster discourse, perhaps due to the chronological proximity of Harvey and Irma, we see the conflation of the Harvey and Irma despite their geographical distance, impact, and politics. One can donate to “Harvey and Irma” at Walmart and the Dollar Store as you check out. Related to this commercialization of disaster, we noticed that unlike Katrina “looting” did not rise as a major issue. The LA Times article addresses these terms and again this infamous meme appears.

ADC mem

However, the first time “looting” becomes visible, it gets retracted quickly. The Twitter backlash toward the ABC journalist is unforgiving as well. We see two takeaways from this. First, whether or not looting is happening is difficult to ascertain. Second, “looting” is now a delicate word, and Twitter activism has contributed to policing disaster discourse for charged language. This policing applies to how we see race enter into the popular media discussions less frequently than we did in similar discussions after Katrina. As a result, this deliberate attempt to deracialize disaster has proven largely successful and intentionally serves to hide the disproportionate effects that disasters, Harvey and Irma included, have on minority populations.

The fact that social media becomes the news in a disaster narrative is another change. The media coverage of these storms proves interesting as well. We watched three of the major cable news networks: CNN, Fox, and the Weather Channel. CNN took a decidedly human-interest approach to both hurricanes. Anderson Cooper and other CNN figures jetted around Texas and Florida and reported from the ground. For the majority of coverage, politics had been excluded from the disaster discussion. However, in studio, Chris Cuomo interviewed Counselor to the President Kellyann Conway and began immediately to confront her about the politics of Harvey. Thereafter, Cuomo used the show to unite a family separated during the evacuation and check in with CNN reporters in Texas. The Weather Channel focused unsurprisingly on the mechanics of the hurricanes. Coverage came from Jim Cantore and fellow meteorologists standing in the wind and rain. From the desk, Dr. Nabb provided worst-case forecast for rainfall, storm surge, and wind damaged to Texas and the Southeast. Harvey and Irma became true celebrities on this network. Their images inserted always on the lower right of the screen. On Fox’s prime-time The Five, the show began with hosts criticizing the liberal media for politicizing Harvey. The remainder of the show discussed the disaster’s politics and belittling other networks’ Harvey coverage. Actual coverage of the disasters was minimal, coming mainly through weather updates, but the politics of disaster was highlighted. If you were to watch only one of these major networks, then you would experience vastly different Harveys and Irmas.

Although both disasters dominated news for almost a week straight, Harvey and Irma are complete; their fifteen minutes of fame exhausted. Harvey suffered at the hands of Irma. Irma fought off Jose and Maria. However, the media should inform and remind Americans that core causes (climate change, neoliberalism) and recovery efforts (aid packages, environmental policy) continue. The irony of course comes from the profusion of hurricanes this summer, which should create a greater awareness. But with hurricanes and tropical depressions rolling off west Africa, the swipe left/swipe right approach to news allows Americans to move on with ease of use and ease of dismiss. The rising action plot points of Harvey and Irma, much like literary and cinematic narratives, is more exciting and compelling than a denouement.


ADCRobert C. Bell
is Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum center and Instructor in the English Department at Loyola University New Orleans, USA. He is the Fiction Editor of the New Orleans ReviewRobert M. Ficociello is Assistant Professor of Writing at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, USA. He is Co-Chair of the Disasters, Apocalypses, and Catastrophes area of the Pop Culture/American Culture Association. Their new book America's Disaster Culture: The Production of Natural Disasters in Literature and Pop Culture will be available on October 19th from Bloomsbury. 

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