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Friday, September 12, 2008

Reporting From the Intemperate Zone

Here's the image: A TV reporter and camera crew are sent into a hurricane zone to eventually show the devastation first-hand. It's all rather theatrical. Looking over the reporter's shoulder, you see harsh rain, trees swaying, waves crashing, cows flying through the air, muppets on fire, sharks swallowing Buicks, etc. In other words, just another day at the beach.

The reporter, in a poncho with hood up, may have trouble speaking normally, needing to cover his or her face. It doesn’t matter that they sound like the Swedish Chef, as long as you can take in the atmosphere. They keep trying to look at the camera, but it's difficult to do while maintaining that aura of objectivity. Yet they soldier on. Does the station want us to be in awe of their ability to find the eye of the storm, to marvel at how their station has the unique GPS technology to track down severe weather patterns… or do they realize they’re looked at as exhibiting mass lunacy?

One time I saw a woman reporter who kept getting blown off balance, and the wind was blowing in her face so much that it prevented her from speaking for any length of time. She was getting rained on, and she had to keep closing her eyes and putting her head down. I'm sitting there at home, feeling sorry for the reporter, waiting for the telethon donation requests to follow that I would gladly contribute to if only to get her out of there, then feeling angry at the TV station, and not even able to focus on the real story. I’m throwing jujubes at my TV screen to try to get them to move, but to no avail. They’ve in essence made part of the story about themselves. Not content at being on the sidelines, they must get right in the middle of it all. The narrator has jumped into the narrative.

A few thoughts arise. Even assuming the reporter is not in grave danger (which is not always a given), why even subject them to the inclement weather? Do we need to see a view of the weather complete with a breathing homo sapien in the shot in order to understand that it's harsh weather? I would think the cameramen could get their shots from more secure locations than while looking the beast in the mouth. Reporters used as tokens… film at 11. It’s a little chilling to see windbreakers worn with the station’s logo on them, when combined with the whole idea.

Of course, the reporters are subject to the commands of their employer, so refusal to comply could adversely affect one’s job status, which means they are not necessarily willing participants. How much are people willing to do for money? That appears to be the spectacle we’re all tuning in to find out.

Sure, the news agency wants the best possible, most realistic, story. But are they compromising the integrity of their employees, unnecessarily subjecting them to harsh conditions? Will it take a reporter finally buying the farm before stations stop subjecting them to conditions like these? That’s the way society seems to work. Keep doing it until it produces a disaster, then change course to prevent that disaster from repeating, and then move on to other disasters.

One wonders what the psychology is behind intentionally placing yourself or your representative in a difficult situation that could otherwise be easily be averted. Isn’t it kind of like scaring ourselves on a rollercoaster ride that we consciously chose to get on? They want the dramatic shot, and they want us to ooh and aah, but we have to willingly suspend our disbelief, pretending we don’t know that they’re only in dire straits because they put themselves in dire straits. Is it brave or even advisable to put oneself in danger when that danger isn’t necessary?

One part of me thinks it's cruel and dehumanizing on the part of the stations to subject their employees to these conditions for no other reason but to stand in front of the camera and talk about the weather. Reporter becomes guinea pig. It produces no apparent direct utility that could not be attained in a different manner. Another part of me says it’s a competition between the reporters, as each tries to show off how daring they can be to all of the others. “Woo, Ralph went right up against the shore when the waves were crashing. Did you see that?” (shakes head) “He’s gooood.” Meanwhile, Ralph’s wife is watching at home. “Ralph, get your heiny away from those waves, you imbecile! You are so fired when you get home. Make me worry like this… And if you drown, don’t expect me to cook your dinner for you tonight either.”

Knowing the motives of the media makes it all the worse. They're trying to sensationalize the story, giving it that dramatic edge. They want it to look like the reporter just happened to be there when all of a sudden things got rough. (surprise!) In fact, one senses that they’re secretly hoping that it does get rougher to add to the melodrama — make it all look natural. If you stand in a place long enough and wait for something “natural” to happen, is that a scoop? In reality, they put them there for the strict intent of being in the midst of rough conditions. That was their ideal. But then they act like it’s an unforeseen circumstance. See the disconnect there? 3-year-olds will often repeat something even when it hurts, and then continue to complain as if they’ve been victimized. Adults playing with their camera toys haven’t seemed to graduate from this concept. A storm is nothing more than an excuse for grown-ups to bring out all their equipment that they’ve been waiting to play with.

In principle, reporters should stay removed from their subject. They should not interact with it. The news is not Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The media wants to make its coverage to look so natural, but in fact it's all carefully contrived, and therefore disingenuous. It smacks of grandstanding, and prevents it from being a genuine product or something that can be relied on as an accurate portrayal of the situation. Just one more manifestation that there’s more than a modicum of entertainment mixed in with the news.

In considering the inanity of much of modern society’s arrayed spectacle, I like to imagine whether there was any historical precedent for such things. “We’re standing here on the Ararat coastline with Noah’s Ark in the background, waiting to see if Hurricane Jehosephat is going to take it away or not. All the animals have been evacuated, but there are still some stragglers on the beach who refuse to leave. Forecasters say it’s probably going to amount to no more than a drizzle. Bathsheba, back to you.”

The rational person watching at home says, "Get the heck out of there and get in the truck, you dupe!" Stop sacrificing yourself to give us the better angle. Some things aren’t worth it. Plus, now I’ve got jujubes all over my TV. They’re the only worthwhile thing on my screen, by the way.

What does this all mean? Am I going to petition against news stations? Nah. Will this start a revolution? Nyet. Will it make me look smarter? Not possible.* (*-that statement could be taken two different ways, but I prefer the ambiguity) Are there royalties involved? Hardly. It just fills the blog and makes us aware of the status quo, in lieu of doing anything about it. I get to place more of my typed characters on the worldwide web, and it causes me a sense of contribution to the overall alphabet cybersoup. Does anyone care that I lined up the letters in a certain way? Hard to tell. People will keep doing what they’re doing until they reach a dead end, and then they’ll just look for a way around the dead end. But while they’re doing it, at least we can sit here watching them and throw multi-colored soft candies at them to make us feel better.


Anonymous said...

While my thoughts on this matter were not as lengthy as yours (still, an enjoyable read), I was thinking the same thing as I watched the news reporting. My husband said that SOMEONE said (great memory I have) to put their names and S.S. numbers on their arms in permanent marker if they were staying so they could be identified after they were DEAD. It was clearly said that if you stay, you will die. And so why not send reporters there to test that theory?


Rusty Southwick said...

You raise a great point. I think what we might end up seeing on camera next time are reporters with their names and social security numbers imprinted on their foreheads. This will be touted as responsible journalism by the TV stations.

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