A newscast that my wife and I were watching earlier this month reported on two earthquakes that had occurred that day in Iran. The story showed video footage of significant devastation and indicated that 250 people had been killed and that perhaps thousands more were injured. The tragedy of what we saw and heard began to move us to sadness and compassion. But quickly I found myself taken aback. Then shocked. And finally angry.
I glanced at the clock and noted that this story had not been reported as the lead. Nor was it the second or third story. It came eight minutes into the newscast. That’s over one-quarter of the news devoted to other things first. What a horrible day in the world it must be when it takes that long (eight minutes seems like a short amount of time, but in television news it’s a lot) to get around to reporting something as significant as 250 people dead, thousands more injured, and towns laying in rubble. But it wasn’t.
Apparently, it was deemed necessary to get to this most horrible event in world on that day only after the typically banal tit for tat pettiness of the presidential campaign back and forth and whatever other relatively inconsequential tidbits of “news” that were noted first. Not to be hard only on the news channel that took eight minutes to get around to this tragedy, I watched a newscast on another news channel that same morning. That news channel reported nothing on the earthquakes.
My emotional U-turn was set into motion when after less than 30 seconds of reporting on the earthquakes the newscast quickly segued to a story about people upset about parking tickets in an American town somewhere. The parking ticket story got significantly more airtime than the earthquakes.
During the parking ticket story, my mind went back to May 2011. It was early afternoon, and I felt my house shaking. I stepped out onto the porch and felt more shaking. I had been in an earthquake once before and suddenly realized what was happening. After chatting with a few neighbors who had also come outside when the shaking started, I went back inside, clicked on a news channel, and got back to work in my home office. For the rest of the afternoon, there was wall to wall, melodramatic coverage of the earthquake that had rocked the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
The Virginia 2011 earthquake caused very little significant damage. Certainly, there were no towns left in rubble. Yet several bricks that had fallen from the corner of a building got way more than 30 seconds of airtime. No one died. And only a few people sustained minor injuries. But it was found necessary to send a field reporter to a hospital to give updates on the bloody nose and lacerated arm that were treated there.
Fast-forward to two Sundays ago. There I sat wondering about these two very different earthquakes that received very different news coverage. I remember saying to my wife, “If those earthquakes happened in the U.S. and 250 Americans were killed, this is all we would see on the news for the rest of today and tomorrow…and we would sit here and watch it.”
The contemplation was only in part about the way in which news media cover events. It also was about the fact that they have learned to give us what we want. Therefore, doesn’t what happened (or didn’t happen) on news channels with regard to the Iranian earthquakes earlier this month serve not only as a reflection of the news media but also of us as Americans?
Would we tolerate, much less stay tuned for, all day coverage of 250 Iranian deaths? Would we find it worthy to take time to keep watching for reports from various locations throughout the devastated parts of Iran? How about if it were 250 American deaths? What if it were piles of rubble that used to be American towns? What do the answers to these questions tell us about ourselves?