TV’s Tsunami Challenge


The tsunami story has grown and been clarified daily like pieces being added to a horrible puzzle, with the death toll seeming to rise between each commercial break on the cable news networks.

Much of the story has been told through home video, which lends the tragedy a more pervasively personal horror. Indeed, relief experts say that television’s vivid coverage has inspired viewers to give donations in unprecedented amounts.

There is much to praise in the electronic media’s response to this catastrophe, from the dedicated correspondents and crews on the scene, to the well-crafted stories of individual survival and courage, to the ongoing media efforts to help raise money for the victims. As no less an expert on human misery than Joseph Stalin once pointed out, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Television has helped us see beyond the statistics.

But there is also room for criticism. Because this story was tailor-made for 24-hour news channels, those outlets have yielded to the temptation to employ the standard techniques of hyping and teasing a story in order to hold news grazers for as long as possible. But this is a story of almost unprecedented sadness. New sensibilities should be at work.

The one-upmanship of death totals and guesstimates, the “exclusive” footage of the carnage and hyped-up stories about the sex trafficking of orphans have verged on exploitation and sometimes crossed the line. We saw a promo for one of the many tsunami-related specials teased in an upbeat voice that sounded more like a promotion for the next episode of Survivor. CNN’s exhaustive coverage, lauded on page 56 by columnist Brian Lowry, was exhaustive and complete but didn’t completely avoid the maudlin clichés of the business.

A cataclysmic event that takes the lives of hundreds of thousands demands straight news leads, not punny wordplay headlines and titles, or purple prose. We have had our fill of phrases like “Waves of Destruction,” “Turning the Tide” and “It came without warning, it killed without mercy.”

There was also something about this story that, juxtaposed against what has become standard prime time entertainment fare, exposed the built-in vacuousness of television. The trouble with this medium is that the TV picture is always the same size. So the utter devastation in Asia can appear to be of equal importance to the events on Fear Factor or Fox’s horrid Who’s Your Daddy? (which aired while thousand of children in Asia were searching for relatives). Ashlee Simpson’s atonal Orange Bowl shrieking at halftime, for more reasons than one, made us realize that a moment of silence would have been much more appropriate.

Television news channels, in spite of some excesses, are covering the disaster commendably. But it is the excesses that worry us. The media often parades victims through the television gauntlet to be induced to burst into tears on every network. In this case, news managers should cease and desist. The victims of this historic tsunami really don’t need to be coaxed to cry for the cameras.