Why are the media so keen on catastrophes?

At first sight we could think that the media are so keen on catastrophes because people need information as well as they need food, shelter or water, especially in cases where lives are in danger and information can protect not only people but their properties as well as the environment- that’s what civil protection is all about.  But why is information on catastrophes so important for the media, to the point citizens are turn into into media consumers almost without a rest? As soon as one disaster is over they are offered news on other hurricanes, earthquakes or floods.

I’ll try to explain in this post how the media built their stories under two premises. One is that speed is what really matters -it was like this before social media appeared- and no doubt that nowadays it is so much more than before. Any journalist will agree that we work under great pressure and that you must be first, besides being credible and accurate.  And the other is related to the fact that the media built their reality on the common myths every society share. In other words, they reproduce not only the society in which they are but also the structures and beliefs related to them.


Crisis communication and storytelling

In my opinion, social communication has one main goal: to reproduce society and their structures. To do so media produce their articles according to an established ritual, in which it is not that relevant what is said but how it is said. Audiences co-participate in this communication ritual by sharing the established codes. To achieve his goal, the speaker must be capable of staging information with ease, respecting the forms, rhythms, and structures. It is the ritual itself that attracts the citizens, making them feel participants within an integrated project.

Nevertheless, this gratification is not the only the reason why audiences are attracted by the media, but the fact that society can cope with every new catastrophe. In other words, even though society suffers one tragedy after another, institutions can “save them ” and restore the normal status quo, by defeating  again and again “the monster” (hurricane, earthquake…) and put order into the chaos. It is in this context, where crisis communication should be understood as a cohesion element. 

It will be easier to understand with an example. Let’s try to remember any well-known children’s tale. I’m thinking on Hansel and Gretel now. It can also work with Homer’s Iliad or the Odissey, as well as with a modern reference:  Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française. If we remember the beginning of any of these stories we have problems that need solving (a war in Homer and Némirovsky case and hungry children in the case of Hansel y Gretel). 

Achilles fighting Hector of Troy

Why do we keep reading? Because we are trapped by the characters and their problems. We want to know what will happen to them, as we want to be informed of what’s going on when a hurricane strikes. We keep reading for the same reasons we keep watching TV or live videos on YouTube. Because we “need” to be reassured that everything will be all right and that things will go back to normal, whatever normality means for a society. Hansel and Gretel will go back home, once the stepmother is out of their lives, the Nazis will lose second World Word, Hector of Troy will be buried according to tradition and the Greeks will return home safe (in the case of Odysseus).

“ What do you want to understand?”- said Maurice to his wife Jeanne in Suite francaise. They tried to leave Paris before the Nazis arrived, but they couldn’t and are back in the city. “There is nothing to understand.  The world is ruled by laws that have not been made for us or against us. When a storm breaks, you do not blame anyone, you know that lightning is the result of two opposite electricities , that the clouds do not know you. You can not reproach them. In addition, it would be ridiculous, clouds would not understand."

To end up, media are so interested in catastrophes because we, as human being, are so inclined. Why some catastrophes interest the media more than others is a different subject, and that will the topic of a different post.

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