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.

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.

As I edited a ho-hum story by a reporter 20 years ago at a weekly newspaper, he defended the many clichés in his copy by arguing that they imparted basic truths about his subject. This defense could be extended to cliché-encrusted disaster coverage: If the sun is blazing and the widows are weeping and the town has been reduced to rubble, why pick nits about it? Indeed, not everybody constructs their best similes when strolling about the decomposing. The mot juste escapes many reporters as they pour important facts into their copy on deadline. And, not every reporter is sufficiently experienced to tell disaster gems from costume jewelry. But enough about reporters' needs. Journalism exists not for journalists but for readers and viewers. Every cliché invites them to believe that nothing new or important is happening and they can move along.

The final blame goes, as always, to editors, who do know their way around clichés, formulas, and templates, having lived them. I'm not suggesting that TV producers instruct correspondents to sing about tornadoes rather than describe and tape them, nor do I want reporters to write epic verse about the day's havoc in the name of originality (unless Michael Lind can take the assignment). Instead, I'd have editors and the copy desk study Cockburn's seven-page [More] classic and glue copies of it to reporters' foreheads as they ship out to catastrophe territory, at which point all would recite this motto: "Kill a cliché: Save a reader!"

******

[More] magazine—not to be confused with Moremagazine, the Meredith Publications' good-life guide for women over 40—covered the journalism business back in the 1970s. Copies of [More] are so rare I couldn't find any on eBay and had to wind through a 10-pack of microfilm reels at a local college library to find the Cockburn piece. If you've got back copies and want to unload them, send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and name your price. Better yet, will the owner of the rights to [More] please post the issues on the Web? (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. No mail from earthlink.net addresses will receive responses unless you promise to turn off your anti-spam protection.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.