We have just gotten through back-to-back blizzards worse than most seen in a century, evidenced in part by the stunned old-timers and record-setting snowfall levels. That said, what we have recently experienced here is a far cry from the devastation and suffering caused by natural disasters in other parts of the world, such as the recent typhoon in Southeast Asia and earthquake in Haiti. But that’s not the impression one would take away from the local and national news coverage of these snowstorms.
Rarely warranted hyperbole has become typical in coverage of natural disasters. Take, for example, what some print and broadcast news outlets named their snowstorm coverage: “Snowmageddon”, “Snowpocalypse”, and “Snowtorius B.I.G.” Jon Stewart , executive producer and host of Comedy Central’s fake news program The Daily Show , poked fun at these ridiculous appellations. And quite rightly, I think.
It’s definitely the case that bad weather conditions and their corollary dangers must receive serious coverage, especially at the local level where up-to-date information is vital for safety and security. But to appropriate a word from the website of a very respectable newspaper, there is also such a thing as “Snoverkill.”
In stark contrast, it is too often the case that places requiring the most urgent attention and people needing the most help do not receive meaningful and sustained coverage. That’s why I was so happy to see CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta  return to Haiti early this week, during the height of what Jon Stewart aptly called an “unusually large snowstorm” in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.
Cooper and Gupta breathed new life into what had been quickly fading coverage of recovery efforts in Haiti. Of course, they continue to report on the controversial issue of the ten Americans held by Haitian authorities . But the bulk of what they've been talking about this week revolves around ongoing recovery efforts, the state of emergency medical care, and, most recently, investigations of endemic corruption that has kept the country poor.
This, to me, is a fine example of the media carrying out its agenda setting function (see a previous post by my colleague Anne Arnold). In Cooper’s own words: “We take you into the streets of Port-au-Prince, because no one should die in silence and no one’s struggle to live should go unnoticed.”
In CommGAP’s recent publication entitled Public Sentinel , Douglas Van Belle quantitatively analyzes relationships among media agenda setting, disaster response, and donor aid. In sum, findings suggest that “every bit of news coverage in donor nations creates a small increase in aid response, and the occasional flood of coverage of a major disaster is likely to generate a massive response” (p. 105).
In the same publication , Susan Moeller  discusses techniques that can enhance media’s agenda setting role in support of disaster and humanitarian response. First, naming the crisis helps. CNN’s current coverage has been dubbed “Saving Haiti”. Whether the name is appropriate can be argued elsewhere. It’s memorable. Second, “breaking news” can help maintain interest. For example, early this week, a young man who had been dug out of the wreckage alive four weeks after the quake received much attention. It was unclear whether he had been trapped under the rubble since the quake (unlikely, according to Gupta). Whatever the case may be, the images were arresting and good visuals are crucial for continued public interest. According to Moeller, featuring celebrities can have negative or positive effects. Hollywood actors Sean Penn and Angelina Jolie have appeared in this week’s CNN Haiti coverage. My sense is that because they seem to speak with sincerity and credibility, they are helping and not hurting the cause.
Moeller captures the spirit and motivation for this blog post: “Even the most calamitous breaking story—a tsunami, a hurricane, an earthquake—quickly devolves into a less dramatic recovery tale of politics, patience, and stamina and so is pushed off the front pages and the top of the news by more recent, and more spectacular, stories” (p. 74).
Thank you, CNN, for not letting recovery efforts in Haiti be snowverwhelmed this week.
Photo credit: Flickr user ChrisM70