As we approach the dawn of the 10th anniversary of September 11, the only thought in my mind is that the media owns us. As an eye-witness and survivor of the attacks on the United States, I can honestly say I am not interested in all the media coverage and for years have refused to watch any documentaries, read any books, or watch any news stories rehashing the events of that day. The anniversary of September 11 is the icing on the cake as far as media coverage goes. However, some events over the past few months have really drilled into me the insatiable appetite we have for doom and fear and the media’s extreme willingness to fulfill this appetite. The uprisings in the United Kingdom, the Earthquake on the East Coast of the United States and Hurricane Irene are examples of my point. During these events, every news outlet put on a full court press in reporting the events. It was a combination of impending doom, play-by-play reporting, and post-mortem dissections. I can honestly say, I have not seen so much media coverage or have been looped into this amount of media gawking since the last United States Presidential election and before that, the events of September 11, 2001.
When Mark Duggan was killed by the police in London, it was a relatively quiet incident. I recall reading about it on-line, talking about it to a few people at a barbecue just days after it happened, and reading a few posts on Facebook. Within days, however, the situation escalated and every media outlet across the globe was covering the incidents as they unfolded. My initial feeling was fear. I was made to fear the ‘hooded’ youths of London as I saw footage of people crowding the streets looting and committing acts of violence. Fear also rang in as pictures of burned down buildings surfaced and who could forget the picture of the women jumping from her burning flat into the arms of citizens on the street.
The maps of where the incidents were spreading did not aid in my fear and myself and others were on a self-imposed curfew. The message was “you could be next” and that fear was realized when I was woken up one morning around 4:30am with a fire in my backyard. A fire was set to the children’s playground/treehouse behind my house. The only thing separating our house from the fire was the small community garden. Despite its distance, my mind immediately went back to September 11 and I went into frantic mode: gathering my passport, purse, wallet, hard drive, and darting out of the house as fast as I could. The fire did not spread and my fear grew into anger.
Beyond the overkill of reporting events as they happened, what disturbed me the most was the lack of agreement on the cause of the incidents. Academics, journalists, and community activists all gave reasons for the incidents from socio-economic factors, sheer opportunism, Margaret Thatcher, the economic crisis, racism, and an endless list of excuses which failed to add personal responsibility to the list. In the midst of all the commentary was the trial by the media. Europe is big brother personified. There are cameras everywhere and I know that in most public places, I am being filmed. This factor was not taken into consideration as individuals were filmed and photographed stealing sneakers, clothing, electronic goods, and attacking innocent citizens on the street. As this footage was on constant loop, the public by way of the media, criminalized these individuals before they ever had a day in court. When it came time for real sentencing, harsh sentences were publicly handed down.
As things began to quiet down, the media kept the incidents on the front page by profiling some of the guilty. The poster-child of the riots was no longer the hooded youth, but social workers, chefs, those who volunteer in the community, and people from all races and socio-economic backgrounds. Weeks later, the incident has all but faded from the media, but the effects of the incidents are far reaching. My family has indicated how happy they are that I am now safe in Philadelphia (although safe and Philadelphia should not be used in the same sentence), criticisms have sprung up on how the government and the police handled the situation, threats of canceling the carnival loomed, and fears about what this means for the Olympics are at the center of the dialogue. There was an incident at Carnival (a stabbing) and another minority was recently killed in police custody. However, these incidents have received very little media attention. More importantly, there is little if any dialogue in the media with regards to preventing a future, similar incident, how to decrease crime, and most importantly how to decrease the number of incidents of those killed in police custody since that is what sparked the ‘riots’.
The day after I returned to the United States from London, the East Coast experienced an unusual earthquake. It was small in comparison to earthquakes felt in California on a regular basis as well as those felt around the world in places like Japan. In fact, I did not even feel the earthquake. A very tiny earthquake turned into another overtly reported news story where doomsday prophesies sprang up and people dramatized the events. I received messages of concern from my friends in London and earthquake ‘stars’ were born. As always, the most ridiculous people are now the poster-children for the earthquake. The stories were the same and for the most part uninteresting. Yet, this historic earthquake was rehashed and rehashed until the next story, Hurricane Irene, pushed it to the backseat.
Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene
When I first heard of the impending hurricane, I shrugged it off. We rarely get hurricanes in Philadelphia. I laughed at my Facebook friends who were acting as if this was the end of the world, sending messages to stock up on food and other supplies necessary for a hurricane. Situations like this always render common sense useless. If there was a massive hurricane with flooding, food would be floating down the street with the rest of house. Additionally, if the power went out and the house did not flood, all the food would be spoiled unless there was a back up generator, but I digress…
Just as September 11 has made us become more sensitive to ‘terrorist’ attacks across the globe, we have become more sensitive to hurricanes since Hurricane Katrina. While no one can prevent mother nature from wreaking havoc across the globe, we can prepare to prevent the least amount of damage and have an action plan in place for quick clean up. While the media plays a helpful role in disseminating vital information, once again the media went on a whirlwind with the barrage of hurricane coverage. One news outlet was dedicating itself to 24-hour storm coverage. How many ways can we see newscasters standing in the wind with rain blasting on their face?
The storm was predicted as a Level 1 hurricane and eventually downgraded to a tropical storm. The storm came and went as predicted, not too powerful and fortunately, there was minimal damage. People did lose their lives, power, and homes, but minimal in comparison to a level 5 or Katrina strength hurricane AND minimal compared to what the media made us believe we were getting. After the hurricane the media came under attack for its coverage. I listened to NPR as some callers were appreciative of the coverage, but many attacked the doom and sensationalism that the media brought on in the name of keeping the citizens informed about an impending storm.
These three incidents are one of many examples of the media overkill. I believe the public needs to demand more from the media as well as create and support public media outlets such as NPR and WURD 900 in Philadelphia. As the presidential election is approaching in the United States, I fear that it will be the media that chooses the next president and not the people. Meanwhile, the situation in Libya has taken a back seat, J-Lo is getting divorced, and Beyonce is pregnant. What stories will get bumped from the front pages next?