Watching the news coverage of Hurricane Gustav yesterday, I was transfixed by images of trees violently swaying and water topping over concrete barriers meant to protect people and property from natural calamities. Having grown up in a developing country with a tropical climate, I am no stranger to the fury of cyclones and some of their most devastating effects – the grievous loss of life and sense of community, the tragic separation of friends and families, and the seemingly senseless destruction of private and public goods and infrastructure. As the U.S. news media fixated on Gustav, my mind's eye juxtaposed media coverage of typhoon after typhoon, too many to mention by name, that wreaked havoc in Southeast Asia.
Benedict Anderson, author of acclaimed book Imagined Communities, also wrote The Spectre of Comparisons in which he describes the inescapable comparison of experiences in one's home country with previous experiences gained abroad, and vice versa. These experiences can revolve around people, places, or events, be they political leaders' speeches, the look and feel of public parks, or as I found out yesterday, news media coverage of natural calamities. According to Anderson, people who have lived in different countries are afflicted with "incurable doubled vision", which leaves one unable to "matter-of-factly experience" things but to see "them simultaneously close up and from afar." Both near and far sighted, so to speak.
Unfortunately, the spectre of comparisons doesn't end in the coverage of storms, it also applies to what happens (or doesn't happen) next. In a paper presented at a conference jointly organized by the Harvard Kennedy School and CommGAP a few months ago, Susan Moeller argues that while the news media are relatively good at covering calamities as they happen, they typically fall short on what should ideally come after: sustained focus on reconstruction and policy debate leading to better disaster preparedness. I believe this lack of focus on how well we are able to pick up the pieces after disasters strike haunts humanity the world over, although more so in some places than in others.
Real-world experience and applied research support the view that the news media – in their roles as agenda setters, gatekeepers, and watchdogs -- can contribute to making sure we do better in the future. Critical to fulfilling these roles effectively and sustainably is the cultivation of a true public service ethos, enabled first and foremost by editorial independence from distorting political and economic pressures.
Photo credit: Flickr user Hulagway