Saturday, January 16, 2010
Compassion and Self Congratulation....a Fine Line
January 16, 2010
The TV Watch
Broadcast Coverage: Compassion and Self-Congratulation
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
One moment looters brandishing machetes trot through streets of Port-au-Prince lined with corpses, and soon after, Robin Roberts, a host of “Good Morning America,” kneels over a sleeping child, tenderly stroking her back.
On Friday, Ms. Roberts informed the adoptive parents in Iowa that ABC News had tracked down their daughter in her orphanage, unscathed and napping soundly. The network framed the moment with the words “Exclusive: GMA finds missing baby; adoption reunion miracle.”
Disaster is both one of the hardest and easiest sights to watch on television; the medium feeds on paradox, presenting extraordinary images that horrify and also comfort. Since the earthquake struck Haiti on Tuesday, network and cable news shows have organized the chaos with raw, graphic footage, as well as with beautifully edited vignettes, some scored to music, that calibrate the balance of hope and despair.
In a disaster this huge, television reporters are the heralds of the fund-raising effort. News organizations repeatedly let people know how and where to donate money for Haiti, and those reminders allow Americans to feel that they can do something useful. They also help television news organizations by reminding viewers — and earthquake victims — that journalists serve as a pillar of the rescue mission, on the scene to do more than just gather information.
Lines of communication are still poor, and conditions are not exactly cozy: some reporters are sleeping on the ground and using car batteries to record their stand-ups. Nevertheless, the need is so vast that the NBC anchor Brian Williams felt prompted to explain himself on MSNBC earlier in the week. As he toured a stricken area, Mr. Williams noted that he and his crew were the only ones there with food, water and power, but that they were using those resources to provide reportage that would galvanize viewers to get involved.
And the television reports are wrenching. Men in masks toss bloated bodies into garbage trucks. Relatives dig with their hands past slabs of cement. A lifeless foot sticks out of a pile of plaster. Helicopters circle streets strewn with corpses. Katie Couric clasps the hand of a scared and wounded boy screaming in pain as a doctor tends to his foot.
There are not enough successful rescues to go around. The same few — a freed United Nations security guard pumping a fist in the air, a woman who was trapped for countless hours in a toppled market, emerging on a stretcher — are shown again and again.
On Thursday night Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, led a camera crew through one of the few remaining hospitals in the region. As he passed wounded and dying victims, he explained that there were no doctors or nurses there to treat them. But CNN made a point of repeatedly showing another scene in which Dr. Gupta ran through the street to minister to an infant, the camera lingering on him as he cradled her in his arms and examined her head for lacerations.
Repetition has its place in a frightening emergency; images shown over and over — be it 9/11, the 2004 tsunami or Hurricane Katrina — magnify an event but can also inure the viewer. A joyous reunion of mother and child helps defuse the bracketing tragedy. But too much repetition can backfire when it looks like promotional material. The line between compassion and self-congratulation is thin on television; in a calamity this vast and acute, many viewers flinch at any sign of reportorial showboating.
And this earthquake has its own rules. Usually television is accused of overselling a crisis. The cameras zoom in on a hurricane, a riot or a guerrilla battle, magnifying the most dramatic images and cropping out people walking to work or hanging laundry in the near distance.
The Haiti story doesn’t need hyping; if anything, television understates the horror by balancing harrowing sights with miniature portraits of hope.
The NBC weatherman Al Roker returned from Haiti to the “Today” show on Friday, and Mr. Roker, the usually jolly co-host, didn’t have too much to say. The situation is “awful,” he said. “The pictures almost can’t convey what’s going on down there.”