The Oklahoma Tornadoes and the Pornography of Death
As a native of Oklahoma City, I have been following news coverage of the recent tornado damage with much interest. The loss of life and property damage in Moore, Oklahoma, and other areas has been horrific, and as Oklahoma's governor, Mary Fallin, stated, the region is very much in need of our prayers.
The Moore tornado was indeed a newsworthy event. At last count, it has resulted in the loss of 24 lives and over $2 billion in property damage. It was especially heartrending in that Monday's storm was the second major tornado to strike Moore in the past 15 years. The residents of Moore, and of the entire region, deserve respectful, accurate, and balanced reporting. What they have received, I believe, is not always that.
When the national television networks first interrupted broadcast shows for special reports on Monday afternoon (May 20), they had already begun to describe the storm as "historic" and "catastrophic." Granted that information was fragmentary at that point, but news reports indulged in what could only be termed speculation. It was known that the tornado had struck two elementary schools that were just letting out, and that fact soon became the focus of much of the reporting. It was suggested that "entire classrooms" of children may have been lost along with their teachers. The storm was immediately compared to the Joplin tornado of 2011, which killed 158 residents. Total loss of life for the Moore tornado was initially reported at 51 and projected to be well over 100. That projection was then reduced to "at least 24."
Certainly the aerial photos were gripping. Hundreds if not thousands of homes had been destroyed. Cars along Interstate 35 were piled up in heaps. Dazed residents were shown walking about, sifting through the debris and searching for survivors.
As these photos appeared, newscasters commented on the events in emotional and sometimes frenzied tones of voice. Again and again, they referred to the "dozens of children" that had probably been lost. Much was made of the fact that Moore had been hit a second time, repeating and exceeding the damage of 1999, a tornado outbreak that killed 46 with 318-mph winds. Monday's storm is estimated to have had winds of 190 mph.
As with so many natural and man-made disasters, the reporting coming out of this tragedy seemed at times something more than a reporting of the facts. From the beginning, it was speculative, with estimates of death tolls and damage running to the high end. It was sensationalistic, with the emphasis on entire classrooms of "third-graders" unaccounted for and "entire schools" demolished. It was voyeuristic, as aerial cameras zoomed in on individuals embracing their children and rescuers digging through the debris in search of survivors, and of bodies.
There is a clear line in journalism between reporting the facts and sensationalizing the story to satisfy the unhealthy emotional demands of viewers intent on experiencing suffering and death as they happen. That line is crossed, and the public's sensibilities are coarsened, every time the media break in with a live hostage situation, a high-speed car chase, or a disaster such as the Moore tornado. Fed a steady diet of such events, the public comes to expect and almost demand their appearance on the news. Even when the media have no actual disaster of catastrophic proportions to report, their first impulse is to fabricate one.
Make no mistake: the Oklahoma tornados of May 20 were not a fabricated disaster. But the media treatment of the events, as almost always is the case, seemed excessive. The media felt compelled to hype the extent of destruction even when no hype was necessary: in the case of the Moore tornado, the images of destruction spoke for themselves.
Dubravka Ugrešic, a Jugoslav writer covering the Bosnian civil war, described this phenomenon as "the pornography of death." The events in Bosnia were bad enough. The images of the war were unforgettable: children lying the streets of Sarajevo, having been shot dead by snipers in the surrounding hills; groups of men and boys being led off to execution; attempts at ethnic cleansing carried out by all sides. But for Ugrešic, who analyzed the media treatment of the war in The Culture of Lies, there was something dishonest about the response of the Western media, and especially the American media.
As the conflict continued over a period of years, the Western media was no longer reporting the events per se, but rather sensationalizing them with the intent of evoking an emotional response in the viewer. And the longer the war dragged on, the more viewers came to expect sensationalized reporting. Once the viewer had seen video of children gunned down in the streets, it was necessary to air even more horrific scenes.
This is not to say that horrific events did not occur in Bosnia. The problem was that the media soon realized how much it had to gain from a constant airing of the most sensationalized and heartrending images and reports. In the last few years, a similar response to weather disasters has established itself.
The question posed by Ms. Ugrešic is whether this pattern of reporting is honest and whether it is morally healthy. Do the media distort the news by focusing on one sort of image, or worse yet, by repeatedly speculating -- as it turns out, inaccurately -- on outcomes? Is it morally healthy to view mutilated and decaying bodies, or to watch live video of scenes of death? Does it desensitize viewers to be shown too much? And do the media, and consumers of media as well, exploit human suffering by engaging in what amounts to pornography of death?
I fear that the answer to many of these questions is "yes." In the case of the Moore tornado, there is no doubt that the news media engaged in speculation and sensationalism. Several reporters described the scene as akin to a "war zone" (which it may well have been, but why not stick to the facts of "hundreds of structures destroyed or damaged"?). Others soon resorted to adjectives like "catastrophic," "monumental" and "historic." The Moore tornado was, in a sense, all of these (though not "historic" in the ranking of the nation's deadliest tornados), but the use of these superlatives will over time diminish their impact when truly "historic" disasters occur.
Not surprisingly, local officials, including Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, had it right in a way that the news anchors did not. When she spoke of Oklahomans as a "tough" people who would get through the disaster -- a people in need above all of the nation's prayers -- she conferred a degree of dignity on the victims that was missing in the hyped commentary of media reporters. She did not attempt to exploit the situation for personal gain. She demonstrated respect for the suffering of others by calmly conveying exactly what had transpired and what was being done in response. The difference in tone between Gov. Fallin's remarks and that of the media hypesters was striking.
The Moore tornado was indeed a huge natural disaster. I am certain that the American people will respond, as they always do in such circumstances, with heartfelt prayers and generous donations. But they should not respond by falling for the media template of another "historic" weather event of "catastrophic proportions."
As a native Oklahoman who was born about the time of the devastating Woodward tornado of 1947 (which killed nearly 200 persons), I can attest that devastating storms are an enduring fact of life on the southern plains. Those who live on the plains don't need New York anchormen or extreme weather "experts" to hype the story for them. A sober and respectful reporting of the facts would do more to honor the storm's victims.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2013).