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Addicted to disaster porn

  • 17 January 2011

Durng 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