Panel discusses
effects of tsunami


A 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.

Moderated by 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.

Tom Arcaro, 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."

Victims of 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.

Toddie Peters, 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.

Other participating panelists included: Greg Lilly, economics; Mike Kingston, biology; Cindy Fair, human services; Mike Calhoun, health education; Yoram Lubling, philosophy; Kirsten Sorenson, political science.

Barnett's complete notes for the session follow:

In Communications 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 social action.

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.

Think about 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 the world.

Another useful 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.

They start avoiding the topic. They have what one scholar has called "compassion fatigue." They 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 engaged.

Ironically, 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 to act.

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 so depressing.

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.



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Last Modified:  1/18/05
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