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The Tsunami Disaster in Southern Asia: Children Will Remain in Crisis Long After the Media Coverage Subsides-- ©Joi Kohlhagen, January 1, 2005

Unlike many dynamics in society where the genesis ... evolves and rises until it reaches its apex, media ... all of its forms: print, ... or internet based—is quite the opposite

Unlike many dynamics in society where the genesis ultimately evolves and rises until it reaches its apex, media coverage-in all of its forms: print, broadcast, or internet based—is quite the opposite. News coverage for all events, particularly those of great disaster and tragedy, begins at its apex, when coverage is ubiquitous, and provides intense and detailed media attention. The reporting always ultimately subsides, over a matter of days, or weeks, or months, depending upon the event. In the case of the tsunami disaster in Southern Asia, where over 150,000 people perished, one third of them estimated to be children and where a projected one million or more children (numbers provided are as of January 1st, 2005, the date of this writing) are critically injured, orphaned, and homeless, media coverage will continue for a long while, but in different form and intensity.

The tsunami was a cataclysmic and horrific event in of itself. Yet the timing of the disaster provided the media with additional angles, which in some cases misdirected the focus of some of the more critical elements of the media coverage. The tsunami ravaged through Southern Asia the day after Christmas and days before the many scheduled world wide New Year's festivities. There was a tragic irony that its victims, many of whom were just a day before happily rejoicing in holiday celebrations, would 24 hours later either succumb to the wrath of one of the largest tsunamis in history or become seriously injured, orphaned and/or homeless as a result. This singular point of tragic irony was made over and over again, implying as if the tsunami had arrived a month earlier or a month later, it somehow would have been less devastating and tragic.

As the days became further distanced from Christmas and New Year's Eve approached, there were widely reported accounts that the death tolls and enormity of destruction were much worse than initially feared. Predictably—and arguably gratuitously—during New Year's Eve day and night, broadcast and cable television coverage were filled with images of the juxtaposition of lavish celebrations for the New Year world wide-cutting back intermittently to scenes of unfathomable devastation, body bags lined up further than the eye (or the television camera) could see, and shots of adults crying in pain and children hoarded in shelters with the blank looks of trauma on their faces.

It is improbable that this kind of coverage was planned. There was no natural disaster of this magnitude in recent history for reporters, producers, and editors to use as a frame of reference. The geographically far reaching devastation of the disaster, including remote and isolated areas that were without communication systems and where local roads leading to them were destroyed, made meaningful reporting during the first days of coverage in those regions nearly impossible.

Even the most seasoned journalists often find it difficult to distinguish when the reporting of essential and relevant details that provide newsworthy context crosses the line to superfluous and maudlin reporting of gratuitous and sometimes exploitative details of a horrific event or its victims. Indeed, after the 9/11 tragedy, the media was widely criticized for the relentless repetition of the airing of footage of the second plane crashing into the former World Trader Center, in addition to the airing of similar frequency video of victims jumping out of windows, and the excruciating footage of the crumbing of the buildings. The media was quick to respond and agreed with the public outcry. Shortly after, almost all broadcast and cable stations (at least in the United States) ceased the relentless airing of that footage.

It is reasonably anticipated that there eventually will be a similar shift of coverage of the tsunami, shifting reporting of the gruesome to reporting of the substantial. For example, the media will likely report on the probable investigations of significant relevance, including the lack of warning systems in the regions of the affected areas; the reasons behind why the first affected area was not able to be in communication with surrounding areas to provide notice for evacuation attempts, and the examination of how to rebuild around the fault lines that caused or contributed to the disaster.

The media has an even greater responsibility regarding its coverage of the tsunami disaster. When media assume the task (as well it should) of providing ubiquitous and extensive non-stop coverage for catastrophes, it also has the obligation to recognize the effect the coverage has on many millions of people worldwide. People often equate the severity of a situation with the amount and intensity of the media coverage it receives. It is inevitable that eventually the depth of the tsunami's destruction will be determined, the estimation of the number of dead will be finalized, and the detailed ironies of the holiday period coincidence may (mercifully) no longer seem relevant. The result is that the media coverage will eventually diminish significantly, even as reports on various investigations unfold. Any diseases that may emerge will be covered. Updates of humanitarian relief efforts also will continue to be reported, as will coverage of the survivors, both those still suffering from medical and psychological trauma and those who are heroically organizing and participating in efforts to rebuild.

The public may not realize how suddenly the media coverage will diminish. As indicated above, when ubiquitous and intense media coverage of a catastrophic event eventually and inevitably becomes sporadic, a common consequence is for people to forget, or at least lose a sense that the most piercing tragic elements of that horrific event will indefinitely continue to endure. Consciously or not, people often equate the level of media coverage to the level of the magnitude of the reported event. It is extremely important for the media to frequently point out that even though its coverage will decrease, perhaps in the coming months to the point of scarce mention, the tragedy still endures. Millions of children will likely still be homeless or otherwise harmed and in great need for ongoing medical treatment for their serious injuries and to battle the onslaught of diseases that are widely predicted to emerge. They will also continue to be in need of uncontaminated food and water, and other basic necessities of life.

The public needs to understand that after the television cameras are turned off and newspapers and magazines shift their focus to other matters, the many months and perhaps years of continual suffering from the devastation of the tsunami will continue. Children will long be in need of significant resources. They will also need—an important point that to date that has not been a subject of media focus—a sense of hope and direction that the knowledge and observation of a rebuilding process can provide. The continuation of packages of aid—a display that the world still cares about them—is also of critical importance. The diminishing headlines and newspaper articles also will not diminish the need for the myriad children orphaned from the tsunami to find a safe and permanent home. Will most people be aware of this on some level? Of course. But that does not negate the need for the media to address the reality of the "out of sight-out of mind" phenomenon that people often experience after significant media coverage of a given situation disappears.

Regardless of the amount or nature of media coverage, there are always a large number of people—even those who are usually empathetic and kind—that turn away from the morose newspaper headlines, or graphic footage of incomprehensible human suffering. Life is hard to begin with. It is most difficult, if not seemingly impossible, for many people, including those who are fundamentally good natured, to embrace the horrific suffering of people who seem so far away; people who seem to be almost part of a different world.

For other people, it is not the location of a horrific event that cause them to care little or not at all. It is a universal truth, yet a relatively rarely acknowledged fact, that there will always be some people that are never of concern for victims of any circumstance, either tragic or common place-unless they somehow perceive that it directly or indirectly affects them or the people in their lives that they care about. There is nothing the media can do to change the character or morality of such people (a type that many sociologists and social psychologists believe to be {thankfully} relativity small in number) that exist all across the world.

As this commentary was accessed by a link on the Poetry Perspective Section of Perspectives On Youth, www.perspectivesnoyouth.org, and because sometimes poetry captures a situation or a point better than other forms of communication ever could, it seems fitting to conclude with a famous passage by the great poet John Donne. Nearly 400 years after placing pen to paper, his words continue to evoke a universal message, both obvious and underlying, providing perspective to the many generations since that have continually found themselves caught between decisions of isolation versus intervention with those-regardless of the level of their suffering—thought of as completely unconnected to themselves.

No Man Is An Island (also known as For Whom The Bell Tolls), a Passage From MEDITATION 17, BY JOHN DONNE (Written in 1623)

No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promentory were, as well as if a manor of
thy friend's or of thine own were.

Any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

For Purposes of Context and Clarification about the passage, Please Note: It was the custom during the times and culture in which John Donne lived for the Tenor Bell (A very loud and far reaching bell) to be tolled for a death. A man was memorialized by the ringing of the "Taylors" - nine strokes of the bell, then a pause, before concluding the commemoration by a number of strokes equal to the man's age at the time of his death. A woman was similarly paid tribute except that her death was marked by seven (two fewer than that for a man) strokes, then the pause, followed by the number of strokes equal to her age at the time of her death. Upon hearing the bell, a messenger was sent to discover the name of the person that died.-----Hence, "Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Donne's point (as stated earlier: this passage has remained among the most universally well-known and highly regarded compilation of words for nearly 400 years) was that the specific identity of the person who died was largely irrelevant. Donne viewed himself and (by implication and interpretation of the passage) all people as part of "mankind." Therefore, the death of anyone lessens mankind and affects everyone. Donne reinforces his view in the first part of the passage: As "no man is an island" everyone has an inherent obligation for empathy, benevolence, and compassion, wherever and whenever necessary and possible. To that same end, as part of mankind, Donne implies that everyone also has an inherent obligation to never cause the suffering or, worse, the "toll" of another person. To do so "diminishes" the person who, by such actions, causes an affront to mankind—and consequently to all people that are part of that mankind.
©Joi Kohlhagen, January 1, 2005--All Rights Reserved

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Joi Kohlhagen is the Founder and Editor of Perspectives On Youth, www.perspectivesonyouth.org, a multidisciplinary Internet forum for those that work with youth and strive toward a common goal: promoting the well-being of youth. She has a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from New York University and is a member of several media related organizations.



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