Disaster porn

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Billy: It’s finding the centre of your story, the beating heart of it, that’s what makes a reporter. You have to start by making up some headlines. You know: short, punchy, dramatic headlines. Now, have a look, what do you see?  [Points at dark clouds at the horizon]
Billy: Tell me the headline.
Quoyle: Horizon Fills With Dark Clouds?
Billy: Imminent Storm Threatens Village.
Quoyle: But what if no storm comes?
Billy: Village Spared From Deadly Storm.

For those of us in the business of news, this quote from the movie The Shipping News, adapted from the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Prouxl, pretty much sums up modern journalism. That is, the mere threat of a storm is enough to make a news story in today’s media environment. If it bleeds it leads after all.

At the weekend, for the third time in just two years, I found myself surrounded yet again by “disaster porn”. Indeed, as soon as the c-word was mentioned, that c as in cyclone, the vultures started to circle. As the nasty remnants of Cyclone Oswald (which I must admit did remind me of that bloke who supposedly killed JFK every time someone mentioned it in the news) blew down the Queensland coast the media got more and more excited. They were almost salivating.

As the storm cell headed towards Brisbane, two national TV channels (which may or may not rhyme with Kevin and Whine) decided that Armageddon was nigh (oh goody they must have thought) and started to broadcast back-to-back rolling news coverage. And it didn’t matter that the state government had said this was not going to be anything like 2011, the vast majority of footage shown over this Australia Day weekend was actually of the disaster that hit Queensland two years before.

Networks parachuted in their highly-paid hosts (well, I’m sure in reality they flew first-class) who stood next to muddy rising rivers with appropriately sad faces and spoke to anxious civic leaders and heart-broken homeowners who couldn’t believe this was happening to them all over again.

The problem with disaster porn, however, is just like real porn it can be addictive and you can wind up watching it for hours even when you know you really shouldn’t. This happened to me in 2011, when the Queensland floods cut a swathe through Brisbane, and when six weeks later, earthquakes destroyed my beautiful hometown of Christchurch. I watched hour after hour of footage during those fateful February days, most of it limited and repetitive, but watch it I did until I thought my heart would break clean in half. Then I jumped on a plane and went home to see the destruction for myself.

This year, however, the disaster porn did not have the same attraction to me. Maybe it’s because it was obvious fairly quickly that this disaster was not going to be on the same scale as 2011 – not in Brisbane anyway. And also as I actually live on the Brisbane River, I just had to look out my window and keep abreast of updates from the police – not the media – to work out if any urgent action was needed to be taken on my behalf. It didn’t, so I stayed indoors as instructed and watched movies for two days. Waiting for a disaster to not happen can be a little dull I’ve learned. And not very good for anyone with higher than normal levels of anxiety.

The day the Brisbane River was due to break its banks you could almost smell the disappointment amongst the throngs of media gathered to capture the impending agony when it peaked much lower than forecast. While Brisbane escaped relatively unscathed, of course other regions were not so lucky and at the time of writing six people had lost their lives as a result of the fury of ex-Cyclone Oswald.

Queensland had only just started to heal from the aptly-named summer of disasters two years ago and a severe storm such as this one is certainly not helpful for our recovery. But, even less helpful, is a national media obsessed with death and disaster who beat up what is a semi-regular weather event, when you live in a tropical climate anyway, for the sake of ratings. They can hardly claim they are providing a community service during emergencies, because people who are being evacuated are hardly going to be watching the telly are they?

Maybe the fact that Brisbane didn’t drown this time, and they missed their big story, might mean that next time it happens – and it will next month or next year – they will leave us relatively alone so we can get on with living in a place that is still one of the most beautiful of them all.

© Hornpipe | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

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