Monday, May 27, 2013

Tragedy Versus Disaster

I want to be clear that I feel for the folks in Oklahoma and everywhere Nature has devastated communities and uprooted or displaced too many. My condolences to those who are mourning loved ones and whose lives are forever changed. This post is not aimed at them. Rather it's aimed at media. This is about the words the media use.

What's the difference between a tragedy and a disaster? A tragedy is something that has typically been confined to entertainments. According to dictionary.com it's defined as "great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering forceas fate or society, to downfall or destruction" and "[a protagonist] of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he cannot deal". 


Jules Winnfield is a human tornado in the world of
Pulp Fiction. You know what's next, don't you?
A tornado is definitely an "overpowering force" and certainly a "circumstance with which [one] cannot deal". Especially when it's a mile and a third wide and stays on the ground for seventeen miles and forty minutes. Every tornado is terrifying but this one is one of the biggest I can recall hearing about. So when I first saw the headlines the day after the events in Moore, Oklahoma, I was bothered but not overly so. "Oklahoma Tragedy". But as the days go by I started really thinking about it.

Was Moore 'destined... to downfall or destruction'? Did the city's 'personal failings' combined with circumstances bring about this disaster?

I've heard the tornado itself described as "angry" and "furious". Can anyone tell me what a happy tornado looks like? Or a sad one? At best, a tornado is indifferent. Its winds can be ferocious, to be sure, or extreme or intense. I think winds in excess of 200 mph are certainly intense. And a tornado doesn't care what's in its path. That's something we learned back in grade school. It does what it does and that's all. 

So the line between entertainment and news is blurred when reporters and networks use terms from drama to describe a natural disaster. And that's a term that isn't being used at the top of any of the reports I've seen or heard. You don't like the word 'disaster' because it's not dramatic enough? Well, first let's eliminate the drama from news reporting, let's stop showing 'dramatic' new footage and let's hear the story. The facts. Let's stop amping up the feels for everyone. It's time. Come on.

Reporters, networks, open a thesaurus and find an alternate word for natural disaster if you like. Cataclysm is a great word. Very evocative. Calamity is good, too. I understand using 'tragedy' to shorthand the human cost of the natural disaster but the use of such shorthands has changed the way readers and viewers take in what you're saying. You have a responsibility to the public to be emotionally removed from the events. You are reporting.

Remember what that means?

I know there are dozens of dictionaries you can consult and I used a popular one. This is one that the public, who you are responsible to, would most likely go to because it's got the simplest address. At the least you should consult that one before deciding to give human qualities to Nature. 

Finally, I'm up early enough in the mornings that I can listen to some of the BBC World Service. If you get the chance, listen to them read the headlines and compare the same headlines to any American news organization. They are (generally) less sensationalistic and often just straight reporting. I listen because they're telling me news, not selling fear or titillation or trying to manipulate my emotions. The added benefit is that I learn things about the rest of the world.

We should all try that.

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