A Reflection on Media Sensationalism


Many of us probably have similar experiences of Hurricane Florence’s four day trudge through the Carolinas. We spent days, maybe even weeks, watching the “cone of possibility,” obsessing over every shift westward or eastward, constantly calculating the chances of school canceling, offering our own takes. And then, as the hurricane came closer and dipped south of us, weakening earlier than expected, we settled in begrudgingly to a period of seemingly pointless house arrest. It was rainy, windy, and maybe our lights flickered a couple of times, but overall, this “hurricane” didn’t seem like much of a crisis here in Cary.

Hurricane Florence was a crisis, though, for many in eastern North Carolina and along the coast. Even though it wasn’t quite what forecasters expected, it still brought severe flooding and wind damage. It affected thousands–taking their electricity, their homes, and in some cases, their lives.

I spent most of this tropical storm in my room, fiddling around with the Common App, checking Instagram and Twitter, and thinking about getting things done. I also checked the weather every once in a while, gawking at the live stream of a shredded American flag in the middle of the ocean (at Frying Pan Tower) before venturing into mainstream news websites to see the national coverage of our storm.

Sometimes it’s hard, as we lounge about in our comfortably dry houses, to fully grasp the weight of a storm like this. We need reminders of the severity. But on sites like CNN or the Weather Channel, the storm becomes something beyond a natural disaster; it’s a spectacle, a source of entertainment. Dramatic all-caps fonts, menacing graphics, and buzz-words fill the pages. This hurricane is no joke, but it seems like large media corporations are less motivated by saving lives, and more motivated by generating buzz, clicks, and ultimately, money.

Media coverage is one of the best ways to warn people about an upcoming threat and urge them to prepare, to save lives. It’s a gift that we have the internet and Twitter and caring public figures that all spread the word. But once the storm starts, do we really need constant updates on something as sensitive and serious as a death toll?

Statistics like death tolls are important for measuring the effect of and response to a storm, but clickbait-y real-time updates trivialize the lives lost, making a hurricane scoreboard out of them. As I saw Florence’s toll start at four, jump to nine, and then to thirteen, I felt a disconnect between the numbers and the actual people. And while that’s true of nearly any statistic, perhaps we need time to grieve more fully for individuals before tacking them on to a growing count. At the very least, death toll numbers certainly don’t need to be eye-catching headlines.

But there’s hope yet. I stumbled upon a New Yorker dispatch on flooded hog lagoons in the wake of Hurricane Florence. An article like this exposes a reader to more than what’s at hand; it shows the connections between the environment, our farming policies, and natural disasters. It interviews farmers who provide first-hand accounts of the larger farming industry’s disregard for the environment. Ultimately, it educates the reader’s perspective of the world, rather than reinforcing short attention spans with dramatic sound bites.

Overly-sensational news is here to stay. But if we could just shift our focus, and readership, to publications that dig deeper, that provide more fully human stories, we’ll only be more empathetic, educated, and ready to take appropriate action.

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