The Media and the Message

Hurricane Katrina made landfall outside New Orleans just about two weeks ago, and the news hasn’t wavered from covering the resulting damage on a nearly 24-7 basis. The blogosphere is completely overwhelmed by news of:

  • what’s happening to the people who were affected
  • what’s being done (and not done) in the way of relief efforts
  • what the (economic, social, political) implications are
  • what the scientific implications are
  • who else comparable things could happen to and when and how

One knee-jerk response to this constant coverage is to watch it all the time. Another is to disparage it as media exploitation and write it off as dulling people’s senses.

But maybe, just maybe, something else is going on here. The Katrina disaster is the biggest catastrophe to happen in America in the history of the mass media, let alone the Internet. Unlike 9/11, it is an ongoing story: that was two hours of terror and disaster followed by months of clean-up, response, and analysis, while this is a story that is continuing to happen every day, and will continue as long as there are people in the Astrodome, troops in the streets of the Gulf, and more.

Our friends at Making Light are only one of dozens of individuals and groups who are constantly blogging both the situation on the ground and the various official, public, and private responses. Our friend Badgerbag monitored the news until she couldn’t stand it for another second, and went on her own to help in Houston, and has been connecting refugees to their missing family members in the Astrodome.

What happens when the people of the United States are barraged 24-7, for the first time ever, with ongoing disastrous events in our own country, our own fellow citizens, in extreme distress? Because this is America, we can’t distance ourselves as a group by saying, “It isn’t happening here.” Because middle-class and affluent people have lost their homes and their possessions (even though they are not–cannot be–the hardest hit), we can’t deny our own fragility. Because our government’s response has been, overall, so completely inadequate, we can’t relax into confidence in our infrastructure.

Never underestimate the power of people to deny, distance, and relax. At the same time, this onslaught of media and information is, perhaps for the first time, pushing people not to do those things. And, also, never underestimate the power of people to find a compassionate, open-hearted response to human trouble. And we’re certainly seeing a lot of that.

It’s far too early to begin to analyze the effects of Katrina on the American sociocultural scene. Let’s just say that this could, with luck and effort, be a tipping point for a shift in American priorities: the first shift in a human direction in over a quarter of a century.