Monday, March 01, 2010

They're looting the Food King!

Here we have a couple of lede stories (WashPost at top, below) that appear to be about the same country but were actually written about entirely different worlds.

Fox first. There's no evidence in the story to support the hed "Looting mounts," but it's not fictional in the same way as (say) Fox's coverage of the ACORN pseudo-scandal. It's a fairly common bit of news routine: proclaiming a statistical relationship that ought to be there, even if it isn't, because this is important stuff we're telling you about here. And, after all, if you're reporting a Trend, you can overlook how little your coverage has advanced from yesterday's.

The bigger point, though, is how quickly and persistently the mythology of disaster rises to the top of disaster coverage. It's been noted for decades that the staple elements of disaster stories -- looting,* panic, disorder, helplessness -- often bear little or no relation to what's happening on the ground. That's not to say your eyes are deceiving you, or that people aren't taking food (or microwave ovens) out of grocery stories, but it should suggest that it's rarely if ever as widespread, pertinent or threatening as it's made out to be.

Disaster myths are by no means the sole province of Fox and the tabloid sector. Coverage on public radio's "The Takeaway"** today has been fairly apocalyptic -- more precisely, apocalyptic in the studio and fairly calm at the scene. Is Chile on the brink of collapse? (No, it's a stable democracy.) Will America rush in and save the day? (Chile was among the first to get S&R teams to Haiti, we're told.) Has the country gone dystopian on us? (No, says the US ambassador, stores are open in the capital and government is back at work.)

And in a way, that gets us back to the Washington Post hed, which is exceptional for two reasons. One, it's about mitigation, which is the phase of the disaster cycle*** that never gets covered -- certainly not at the top of the front. That's understandable, because mitigation tends to be about stuff like warning systems and building codes, but unfortunate, because warning systems and building codes often have a very direct relationship to how well you (and your property) survive the next disaster.

Two, as you've probably noticed, this is an era of deeply screwed-up political discourse. If any sentiment seems more commonplace than "show me where it says the gubmint can take mah money," it's "when did you ever see a gubmint program that works HUH?" Well, that's what mitigation does. The gubmint takes your money and holds developers' toes to the fire (or raises the levees), and fewer houses fall apart in the next hurricane. Neat, isn't it?

Fox is just doing what journalism does when the peasants start looting the Food King. The Post is actually contributing to the overall conversation about disasters, gubmint and money, and for that it ought to be commended.

* What exactly constitutes "looting" is a different issue; The Ridger gathered some good discussions of the topic during the Haiti quake's aftermath.
** Which I still find pretty execrable, but compared with the commercial radio networks ...
*** One fairly standard way of breaking it down is warning, impact, recovery, mitigation.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not really meaningful to compare a long-form NPR news program with commercial radio, given that the longest news program in commercial radio is CBS World News Roundup, weighing in at a hefty ten minutes (commercials included). You should be comparing "The Takeaway" to "The Early Shift" (CBC R. 1, available in your area on CBE [1550 Windsor]), "Today" (BBC R. 4, available over teh intertubes), or "AM" (ABC R. National, also streaming).

10:05 PM, March 01, 2010  

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