Addicted to disaster porn


'Disaster porn' by Chris JohnstonDurng the past week, we've been treated to wall to wall television coverage of the Brisbane and Queensland floods. Being able to see inside people's waterlogged homes gives us an insight into how they must be feeling. But does it facilitate empathy, a human connection that might help them through the crisis?

That has to be considered unlikely, if we are to take to heart some of the lessons of 9/11.

After that event, BBC correspondent Stephen Evans described as 'pornographic' the relentless repetition of images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre towers. 

Disaster porn refers to media putting 'horrific or tragic images on a 24 hour loop, constantly driving them into your head, and then referring to the events portrayed as an unspeakable tragedy'. It is exploitative and voyeuristic, rather than contextualised.

The British broadcaster ITN was rebuked by the regulatory authority for a sequence in which it used images from the 9/11 attack with music but without the context that is provided by commentary. ITN's editor-in-chief said the intention of his team was to 'allow people to dwell on the images'.

Some would argue that television, and indeed the media in general, is all about fulfilling the human need for gratification, prurient or otherwise. Academics Lelia Green and Steven Maras reflected in a 2002 print article for the Australian Journal of Communication on feeding audience hunger for the resolution of tension. 

Even journalists that tried to move on to coverage of other events found that their audiences did not want to leave 'ground zero': 'the readers and the newsagents reported back very quickly that the readers still wanted to keep reading about it on their front pages'.

It's clear that media consumers can exploit disaster victims for their own gratification. But it's also true that most, if not all, have no idea that they're doing so. Even those responsible for the coverage can have much more laudable intentions on their minds.

Channel 9 Queensland Managing Director Kylie Blucher told the Televised Revolution podcast on Thursday that, in the interest of community service, her bosses in Sydney had given her the nod to put aside the ratings. Instead her mantra was 'keep repeating hotline numbers' in order to get information about the Brisbane floods out to people as quickly as possible. 

But the reality is that most viewers don't need the hotline numbers. Those looking for the numbers are more likely to be listening to the radio, as the power was cut in many affected areas, and everybody has a battery radio. That was certainly the experience of Susan Prior, whose experience of the flood is published today in Eureka Street.

Those tuning to TV rather than radio coverage would be bystanders attracted by the images of the tragedy, and it goes without saying that there must have been a great deal of repetition of images to fill Channel 9's continuous coverage from 4:00am until 10:30pm. Whether they are a stated priority for the executives, the ratings for such television events are usually phenomenal, and the Brisbane flood coverage did not disappoint.

Viewer gratification aside, it has to be admitted that media coverage of such events does contribute greatly to the solidarity that is vital to assisting the community to get through such a calamitous event. It promotes the need for assistance, specifies the priorities, and puts the public in touch with appeal collection points.

In all likelihood, it does much more good than harm. However if you think you might have a weakness for disaster porn, it would be wise to choose to inform yourself by radio rather than TV.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Queensland floods, Brisbane, Anna Bligh, disaster porn


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Existing comments

I have had personal experienceof the effects of Media saturation. I have relatives in England as well as around Australia, In England they see images on T.V. which gives them the impression that all of Australia is under water and worry about us in Australia. They do not realise that Australia is a large place and it is only areas near rivers that are effected.
John Ozanne | 17 January 2011

There is no doubt that the media craves a disaster to occupy its spaces whatever they might be. And as humans only the very pure/refined of us don't want to know. Media Porn as a name is an over-reaction by the holier than thou on same level as disaster reporting. Having said that, of course, the reporting was boringly repetitive and overdone. ABC television in my opinion led the way. It often does. In all that there might have been space for the floods in Brazil.
Brian Poidevin | 17 January 2011

Some news coverage in Europe tends to add a great deal more drama to the "porn," I think. I have many relatives in Greece who are forced to consume their daily news with a great deal of salted dramatics. Greek news may spend up to 35 minutes on one story, massaging it like bread dough. That story will be massaged daily for a further one or two weeks! Until something more disastrous comes along.

My 12 year old cousin emailed me a few days ago because she had heard on the Greek news that any day now we (here in Sydney) were going to be under water too. I had to give her a geography lesson just to ease her mind. A day later, her grandmother rang up to see if we were okay.

No doubt, coverage of such calamities does bring about the solidarity needed to revive a community but I fear that the news relies on people's ignorance and anxiety, more than their compassion, to do this; it does not necessarily always inform.
Helen Koukoutsis | 17 January 2011

Thank you Michael. Just a nuance: while those in flood affected areas may not have accessed TV, as someone in Sydney who has many friends in flood affected areas up North, I did find it helpful, not only to keep me across what was happening where, but to feel that, in some way, I was with my friends and understood a little more of the scale and gravity of what they were experiencing. That said, I agree with the thrust of what you say, especially the absence of context. Surely in all of that coverage there should be more time given to exploring the causes of what was happening - a discussion of the climate change plus El Nina equation, whatever you may think of it - as well as to the global parallels: floods in Brazil, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. I'm all for lots of coverage - surely better than candy distraction usually on TV - but would appreciate depth.
C. | 17 January 2011

While the media were giving us a blow by blow description of the Brisbane floods, Brazil was having a much worse indeed disastrous event , not to mention the floods in Sri Lanka and the central Philippines....then of course came western Victoria which is now getting a similar beatup!
Well done Michael..
Gavin O'Brien Canberra | 17 January 2011

Various friends and family members got sick of the footage loopIng on TV and the sentimental reporting, yet it did effectively communicate the massive impact the floods have had on many communities. Hopefully this awareness leads to generous donations towards the recovery phase, as occurred with the Victorian bush fires appeal.
Clare | 19 January 2011

Interesting article. I am a journalist who was up at Horsham and Warracknabeal earlier this week to report on emergency services workers there and I heard a few media people complain it was not that the events were not 'exciting' enough a la QLD floods for them to be there.

In my case I avoided the usual suspects of flood water shots. Instead I listed and photgraphed the wonderful volunteers incuding CFA, SES and community groups who were doing the backbreaking work such as sandbagging to save their towns.
We need to pay more attention to the human picture and less to the sensational.
Alison Aprhys | 21 January 2011

I have no TV but do listen to ABC News Radio overnight when I get good coverage of internaitoal new as a rule via the BBC. However for a week News Radio was switched to Q'land local radio & as far as the ABC was concerned the rest of the world could have disappeared. It is maddening as Victoria's local ABC radio was also switched to Q'land & in any case there was a special digital chanel entirely given over the flood news. One ends up being sick to death of it all which is most unfortunate as the floods have surely been tragic for many.
Rosemary West | 21 January 2011


I agree with the definition you've endorsed above, Michael, and think it's entirely applicable to the global warming narrative as well, particularly the tropes of disappearing frogs, melting glaciers, animals fleeing to higher latitudes, Maldive and Pacific atoll inundations, shortly-to-be-extinct polar bears, increased frequency of droughts in Australia, and so on.
HH | 22 January 2011

"Disaster porn" I agree with the editorial: the only thing more pornographic would be to say it was all God's doing, or to say it is God's punishment for homosexuality-or the wicked world we live it.
Venise Alstergren | 09 February 2011

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