If the earthquake doesn't kill you, the clichés will.

Media criticism.
June 1 2006 5:53 PM

Disaster by Numbers

If the earthquake doesn't kill you, the clichés will.

An 8.9 magnitude earthquake devastated Japan today, unleashing a tsunami that inundated the northern regions of the country. In addition to painful images from scenes of the disaster, one can expect to wade through the stale, unhelpful language of disaster journalism. In 2006, Jack Shafer lamented that cliché-laden news coverage obscured real suffering. His article is reprinted below.

Write your own clichéd caption about the Indonesia earthquake
Click image to expand.
Write your own clichéd caption about the Indonesia earthquake

The earth pukes fire and breaks apart. Its oceans dispatch tsunamis, and the heavens, oh the heavens, churn like an intestinal disorder, flinging skyscrapers of water upon the coasts. Winds and floods scrape the land clean of buildings, bridges, and people.

Water schemes with earth to make mud, which spreads over the dead and half-dead like skanky chocolate frosting. Man-made mayhem curses us, too—shipwrecks, fires, plane crashes, derailments, pileups, and cave-ins.

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To these scenes comes the journalist—if he hasn't already staked out the territory. With pen, camera, or microphone in hand, he struggles briefly against cliché to document the suffering and mop-up but always surrenders because the disaster-news template defies renovation. Audiences know what they want from the disaster-news genre—a blink of horror before the sports scores and then maybe a longer gaze later—and the press gives it to them.

Saturday's earthquake in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, killed about 6,200, and it got its standard one- or two-day ride on the front pages of American dailies before moving inside. In every regard, the continuing coverage conforms to the disaster-news formula revealed by Alexander Cockburn for [More] magazine three decades ago in "Death Rampant! Readers Rejoice" (December 1973).

The only dated element of Cockburn's piece is his observation that American media remain ashamed of disaster coverage, unlike the British press. Since his piece appeared, we've closed the embarrassment gap with our 24-hour news networks, our minicams, our cheap satellites, our never-sleep Web sites, and our color newspaper presses. Cockburn's earthquake template demands:

Quick comparisons with other earthquakes. Secondly, where is it? Usually in "remote Eastern Turkey" or in the "arid center of Iran." But with luck it will have occurred in marginally more accessible Latin or Central America. Good chance for post facto description. Most of the buildings destroyed; others leaning at crazy angles. Constant flood of refugees. People clawing at rubble. Survivors crawling, blinking into the light of day. Preliminary tremors, then "for six seconds the earth shook." Make sure to get picture of one building standing (usually a church in Roman Catholic countries or a mosque in Muslim ones.) Get interviews from American survivors. Animadvert on general danger of earthquakes, particularly in San Francisco area. Most important of all: get casualty figures and escalate them each day. Remind people that 200,000 people died in the Lisbon earthquake.

In Cockburn's manual, slow-moving killers such as famine, disease, tribal genocide, or automotive holocaust (approximate 42,000 killed a year in the U.S.) rarely qualify for disaster coverage because quickness of death is the genre's distinguishing characteristic. Hell today, gone tomorrow, in other words—or at least gone from sight.

In the limited vocabulary of earthquake coverage, quakes always "strike" or "hit." A Nexis dump of U.S. pieces about the Yogyakarta earthquake reveals it as powerful. Buildings are flattened. In the aftermath, chaos follows as persistent aftershocks rumble and people refuse to move back inside. Hospitals fill and volunteers arrive and foreign aid is promised. Rubble figures prominently: Homes are reduced to it, survivors dig and root through it for possessions and victims. Rice farmers and chicken farmers are interviewed. Field hospitals are set up. Shortages of food, water, and medicine hamper the relief efforts. If it doesn't rain, the sun blazes down on hundreds of thousands of the displaced, who camp out in rice fields, on soccer greens, at parks, or by the side of the road. The victims criticize the government response.

In its post-disaster coverage, the press always finds the prophet who warned that authorities weren't prepared. Sometimes the prophet is a journalist, sometimes he's an academic or politician. But he is found and has his day in the blazing sun or the downpour, whichever nature delivers. Stragglers, left for dead, are found. Cockburn counsels that reporters should limit avalanche coverage to just 48 hours, after which rescue is extremely unlikely. Work in a surviving dog, if you can, he advises. Herald the quiet heroism in train crashes. Play up the panic aboard shipwrecks. Age plays an important role in disaster taxonomy: The more children or old people who die, the greater the catastrophe, presumably because they can't rescue themselves as efficiently. Other benchmarks: The closer to the United States or Western Europe, the greater the disaster; the more video footage, the more visible bodies, the more audible the wailing, the greater the disaster.

The randomness of plane crashes, tsunamis, and apartment fires is balanced by the time-clock reliability of tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes, all of which arrive by "season." This makes it easier for editorial desks to plan ahead and even lay in a supply of clichés. "Remember to have 'winds up to 150 miles an hour' and also don't forget the quiet center of the hurricane's eye," Cockburn writes. "Remember that this may be the chance for a record. Is this the biggest hurricane in living memory?" Today, June 1, marks the official beginning of the U.S. hurricane season, an odd opening-day seeing as the hefty storms tend to come later in the year. In any event, see the cliché-ridden hurricane-season stories from Bloomberg News, Florida's Sun-Sentinel, the CBC, the BBC, USA Today, the Associated Press, and more in Google News.

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