Why “Disaster Porn” Storm Reporting is So Tantalizing — And Destructive

By Rachel Kraus

When Hurricane Irma tussled the West coast of Florida instead of decimating the state entirely, those of us following closely, but from afar, unwittingly felt…disappointed. Nowhere was that anticlimax more evident than in the overblown and ubiquitous fixture of the fall: the live television special news storm report.

You know the sort: an anchor, pulled from behind his New York studio desk and clad in a windbreaker instead of a sport coat, emcees from a lightly-battered boardwalk in Florida or Texas while squinting against the drizzle. He repeats a series of the same obvious “updates” while looking slightly uncomfortable: “the wind is strong!” Or, delivered with a tone of bracing sobriety, “this is just the beginning of what is sure to be a long night.”

Then the anchor throws to a meteorologist back in the studio making circles with both hands, who then throws back to the beleaguered anchor, who excitedly throws to a reporter in the field, who proceeds to describe what he “just saw,” but now, with the expectant camera trained on him, is mostly just waiting around, alone in the rain.

There is a sense while watching this insipid loop that the newscasters are on tenterhooks for something to happen. And this pervasive feeling is indicative of the larger disservice that long-format, “special report” broadcasts of storms do to actual victims: they sensationalize disaster, and in doing so cause reporters and viewers alike to effectively wish for human suffering. And worse, to become let down when they cannot see it, which ultimately distracts from urgent problems and achievable solutions.

In the midst of an hours-long special hurricane report, the desperation of the anchor, as he searches for more details to describe the wind, is palpable; the grim tone used to introduce the sight of a flooded walkway conspicuously inflated. You get the feeling that the newsroom would cry tears of relief should a leveled building or stranded grandmother be discovered. In this blatant search for something to report, the newsmen are wishing for the sort of destruction and subsequent anguish that will translate on camera.

Of course, a lot of headline-grabbing news concerns the travails of the unfortunate and disenfranchised. But the special storm report sets up expectations of drama and stakes that the poor live team can rarely meet. As hurricanes strike land, they will almost always lose steam as their source of plentiful warm water dries up. So, as with the case of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, both record-breaking hurricanes were downgraded from fearsome Category 5’s to merely formidable 3’s and 4’s. And when hurricanes endanger lives by, say, cutting off the electricity of a nursing home that’s necessary to power breathing or dialysis machines, they trigger a slower, less visually communicable sort of threat rarely shown in the live special reports. With the anticipation of untold devastation, the repeated images chosen by storm broadcast news of flooded streets and harassed palm trees, lose their impact — especially over six hours of live broadcast.

But the anchor’s desperation and awkwardness sucks you, the viewer, into the coverage. Absorbing the frantic energy of the broadcast, you too find yourself searching for a toppled power line or — better yet — an impaled correspondent. The news makes you an accomplice in effectively wishing ill on those citizens who find themselves in the path of a storm; it causes viewers to conflate seeing nature at its promised most ferocious with the only way destruction can be effectively communicated on screen: through human suffering, whether caused by property damage or something worse. Watching the flailing broadcast results in a vague let down when billions of dollars in structural damage to Miami doesn’t occur. The disappointment might just be a private shrug as you turn off the TV, finally deeming it a waste of time — but it’s there.

Still you keep the broadcast on in the background while folding your laundry, or you repeatedly refresh your #HurricaneIrma Twitter feed while underground on the subway, in case a glimpse at the promised extreme weather — corollary, extreme suffering — should become visible. When the weatherman tells you this is the big one, you keep your eyes and ears open no matter how many times he comes up short. It’s this cycle of return and subsequent frustration that actually keeps you, keeps all of us, from true empathy, and the action it would take to mitigate damage in the first place.

In searching for an image or spokesperson that can deliver on the promised apocalyptic devastation, the kind of suffering that’s less flashy or digestible — hunger, thirst, loss of power — gets downgraded. And while resolving the narrative of flooded homes with noble pledges to rebuild after every Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria, Nate, and Ophelia, we elide the truly terrifying reality that these storms will keep happening as the coast physically moves inward thanks to global warming. We skate over the possibility that rebuilding in the now annual path of ever-larger storms is perhaps not the best way to actually help victims.

Protracted news coverage of storms creates a hunger for voyeuristic stories of calamity. When only the most horrific destruction will satisfy, news and viewers become numb to the urgency of the problem of frequent, record-breaking storms. We lose sight of the way we must address the solutions, lest another storm actually live up to our macabre expectations. Only, by then, we may have already lost the ability to be moved by quotidian extreme suffering at all.

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