During 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 water-logged 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 p-rn 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 Nine’s continuous coverage from 4am 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 p-rn, it would be wise to choose to inform yourself by radio rather than TV.

*Michael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street, where this story first appeared.

Peter Fray

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