10-person, multidisciplinary panel of Elon University faculty experts
- including Brooke Barnett of the School of Communications - discussed
the effects and aftermath of the recent devastating Asian tsunami
during a special presentation Jan. 13 in McKinnon Hall.
Cary Caruso,an assistant professor of physics, the panel offered
a number of perspectives on the recent tragedy. Caruso opened the
forum by providing background on the physical and geological causes
for the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. He said the earthquake
released energy equivalent to 23,000 atomic bombs.
In her remarks,
Barnett talked about the tsunami in relation to: agenda setting;
narcotizing dysfunction (or "compassion fatigue"); ethnocentric
coverage and in-group preference; and the influence of the economics
of the communications industry when it comes to determining the
length of a particular news cycle.
The full text
of Barnett's notes can be found at the end of this article.
a professor of sociology, said sudden natural disasters grab the
world's attention because they differ from ongoing problems such
as disease and famine. "The tsunami is different from (the famine
in) Darfur or AIDS because it is no one's fault," Arcaro said. "Its
cause is an act of God. Crises like AIDS and Sudan bring up questions
of right and wrong and highlight the deep divisions in our world."
natural disasters can feel a wide range of emotions, said Katie
King, an associate professor of psychology. "Some feel anger or
re-live the event," King said. These are all symptoms of post-traumatic
stress, which "develops from events so extreme that they are beyond
human comprehension," King said.
an assistant professor of religious studies, said religion is one
way people try to explain disasters such as a devastating tsunami."Natural
disasters serve as a frightening reminder that it could happen to
anybody," Peters added.
panelists included: Greg Lilly, economics; Mike Kingston, biology;
Cindy Fair, human services; Mike Calhoun, health education; Yoram
Lubling, philosophy; Kirsten Sorenson, political science.
complete notes for the session follow:
we have a few ways to research and critique the media coverage of
a natural disaster. I'd like to briefly tell you about those tools,
offer some observations on the quality of the coverage and talk
about some ways that the coverage might be an effective tool for
A major theoretical
concept for communication scholars is agenda setting, which, by
the way, was developed by professors at UNC Chapel Hill in the 1960s.
The idea is that the media do not tell you what to think, but rather
tell you what to think about. The coverage of this natural disaster
does not direct you to a conclusion about this issue, but it will
get you thinking about it.
as a flashlight that the press shines on the issue. Right
now, the news cycle is centered on the tsunami. The media has put
that on our agenda. The flashlight is pointed to that region of
tool for thinking about media coverage of a natural disaster is
the notion of narcotizing dysfunction. This dysfunction is exhibited
in an increased apathy or inertia as the public is bombarded with
more and more information;
people watching and reading all this coverage feel that they have
already participated in the issue simply from the effort put forth
to become informed.
avoiding the topic. They have what one scholar has called "compassion
are unable to hear more about the issue and in turn do not act in
any meaningful way to correct the problem. They've spent their emotional
energy simply following the coverage. This is one reason why people
who try to compel action for their issues become frustrated from
the lack of response after initial media stories. What we know from
research on visual images may help those who are trying to keep
this an issue beyond this breaking news cycle. Novelty catches the
attention and enhance memory - a key step to getting people to act.
So the challenge for relief workers and organizations is to continue
to find new ways to present this information to keep the public
these novel images are often the ones that garner outrage from the
public. The best example from the current tragedy comes from The
New York Times, which ran a huge photo that stretched across five
of the six columns across and nearly half the depth of the front
page. It was an image of a grieving mother crouched beside the lifeless
bodies of tiny children. In the top corner, three pairs of feet
extend from beneath a white sheet. This suggested that beyond the
frame were row upon row of victims such as this. Readers complained
about this photo. They said that it was disrespectful. Some said
that a similar photo would not be shown of American dead. The photo
editor who ran it said that it was the job of the newspaper to bear
witness to this awful truth.
It turns out
that this type of image is exactly the type that can compel action.
It is like nothing we have ever seen before. It brings home the
horror of this tragedy in a way that, as communication scholars
have shown before in studies of graphic images, makes us remember.
With these images etched in our memories we might be more likely
And now to
quickly address some of the common criticisms levied against the
press and its coverage of this event. The coverage did explain what
a tsunami is. That is basic information that many of us did not
know before. But the rest of the world still thinks Americans care
about death and destruction only when Americans are involved, and
media coverage has not helped the matter. The coverage is ethnocentric
- that is it focuses too much on the Americans affected, the tourists
who were visiting, the swimsuit model who survived by holding on
to a tree for eight hours. A disproportionate amount of the coverage
was devoted to Western tourists.
It was easy
to interview English-speaking survivors about their experiences,
and this in turn meant lots of stories from European and American
vacationers. But more than 95 percent of those who died were poor
local people and they did not receive 95 percent of the U.S. media's
attention. They deserved much more. This harkens to yet one more
theoretical concept. This one is borrowed from social psychology
but often applied in communication studies. It is the notion of
in-group preference. We prefer to hear stories about those who are
most like us. It is surely more ethical or moral to think of all
humans as the same, but it is surely counter to human nature.
It is a human
tendency and likely an evolutionary protection for me to care more
about those inside my clan than others - for me to care more about
my children than someone else's. It is a human tendency that we
can be aware of and can fight but one of which the press, in an
effort to keep an audience, is also aware. People want to hear the
stories from the people who could have been them. That is most compelling
to them as individuals. And so, the press will focus on these stories.
There are also
practical reasons why the story is so U.S.-focused. Although some
also see it as a social calling, journalism is a business. These
organizations must sell advertising to survive. They require readership
and ratings to be able to set adequate advertising rates. So they
must assure that they keep an audience.
Once the audience
starts to dwindle for a particular story, the news cycle is up.
We are no longer even seeing the tsunami on the front pages. The
major anchors, who took a full week before even heading over, have
now left the region. The issues are not over, but the heavy media
coverage is already. Some of this is because the public is ready
to move on. During the four days of commercial-free media coverage
after 9/11, hoards of viewers trolled the cable channels looking
for things to take their minds off this tragedy. People were ready
to move on to other stories, other diversions. Also after a certain
point advertisers don't want to be connected to a story that is
We all know
that Americans love "reality television." But it may be
that we do not respond as well to reality on television, and this
means less action from the media-watching public. For those attempting
social change this may be quite dismal news indeed.