Listening to the news about the Japanese/Pacific tsumani reminded me of a question we posed to our Media Ethics class this year. We asked them to consider whether watching suffering entailed responsibility, and how a viewer could possibly respond.
The mediated aspect of disaster is the tricky bit. I listened to Radio 4's Today programme this morning, and it was obvious that something big was unfolding. Sometimes the presenters' voices would wobble as they contemplated the mass destruction and death to come. I was comforted by this: I don't think cold objectivity is possible or desirable.
At other points though, at least one of the presenters sounded excited by the drama: disasters make great broadcasting. People phone in with reports, Twitter feeds can be quoted. In the editorial room, computer graphics are being deployed to give us a sense of mastery through knowledge. Getting there first, or getting the most dramatic accounts become part of the excitement. The event becomes a commodity. BBC competes with ITV, rolling news channels are relieved that Accrington Stanley's reserve goalkeeper's wobbly knee is no longer the lead item, and the multiple moments of horror become a kind of pornographic entertainment.
Distanced by screen and footage and graphics and newsreaders and journalists, we no longer imagine the final terrifying seconds of an individual's life because empathy is blunted by mediation. Instead we wonder at the 'power of nature' or the heroic efforts of the rescue teams. We're disconnected from the people in the eye of the storm, which is terribly sad, but having pictures of their suffering won't reconnect us - it just gives us the illusion of immediacy and witness. If you need pictures to make you care, you're a damaged human being.
I was rather annoyed by the coverage of the New Zealand quake recently: much more heartfelt than coverage of the disasters befalling non-English speakers and non-white people, but it was flawed too in that the concentration on sheer scale failed to convey the true horror: those scared individuals facing a terrifying end.
What am I saying? Not sure. That we need empathy in journalism without sentimentality, but also that the media's obsession with speed and technology haven't brought us closer to events but distanced us from them. Baudrillard's concept of hyper-reality is right: TV gives us the illusion of involvement and reality while actually creating a whole new set of events with very little relationship to facts (if there are any) on the ground. What we need is more silence, more admissions of inadequacy and ignorance from our media, rather than the loud insistence on omniscience.