Watching fires not quite like a car wreck - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Watching fires not quite like a car wreck

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Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2007 1:13 am | Updated: 6:17 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

OK, I admit it. I’ve been glued to my television and computer, watching nonstop, wall-to-wall fire coverage from California. And in the midst of the devastation I find some very hopeful signs.

First, a word about “nonstop, wall-to-wall coverage.” I admit that my consumption of this coverage has been a bit excessive. I find it fascinating, absolutely riveting, and I can’t wait to get another update. The next bit of information I get may or may not be helpful to me, but I still can’t wait to find out about it.

I also know in times like these how easily “the media” can become a target of people’s wrath, and the butt of people’s cynicism and insulting jokes.

In this case, the sector of the media industry facing the harshest criticism is the world of television news, especially the national cable TV news channels. I’ve already read blogs and have received personal e-mail from people complaining that the California fire coverage on CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel is excessive and exploitative, and I have heard people criticizing our local TV stations for the same thing.

For media outlets in Southern California, the need to provide coverage seems obvious enough. But, as one reader here in town asked me, “why do they need to constantly show the fires destroying yet another house when we‘re so far away from it?”

Reasonably, there are two answers to this. The first answer is easy: “They” (the television professionals) provide video coverage of a fire destroying another house because, quite legitimately, the event in and of itself is newsworthy, and it can suggest that additional threats to other regions may be imminent, and a threat to one region of our nation can affect the rest of the country.

The second answer is obvious enough as well: People watch this stuff. They may complain about it but they still watch. In fact, the more disaster video that appears on your TV screen, the more likely you are to continue watching. And TV outlets, whether national cable TV operations or local broadcast stations, love to increase the time that you spend watching them.

Let’s also be thorough in our analysis here, and realize that the Internet is also a part of this frenzy that seems to reach a fever pitch at times like these. Every television station, newspaper, and radio station whose Web site provides either streaming or on-demand video news coverage contributes to both the demand, and consumption rates, of crisis images. The “on demand” nature of Internet video allows us all to watch the same tragic scenes over and over again, and this in turn influences people’s viewing preferences and habits for the real-time, live coverage on the television.

But apart from the images of flames destroying property, what I find most intriguing in the coverage are the interviews with people on the scene. Sure, the “man on the street” shots with people who have been evacuated or whose homes have been destroyed can seem intrusive and painful, but they also put a human face on the matter, and can engender a sense of compassion with viewers.

Likewise, the interviews I’ve seen recently with people providing help to the fire victims are some of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in a long time. This point hit home with me earlier this week.

While watching one of our hometown TV stations, a Hispanic female reporter began to interview two men, one white and one black, who were voluntarily helping evacuees at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium.

As the reporter asked them “why are you here today?” the first man to respond said “it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Then the other replied “Yeah, I just wanted to help my fellow Americans. That’s all.”

And doesn’t that just say it all? Contentious and divisive as our culture may seem to be at times, when trouble hits we unite. One’s politics and skin color take a back seat to immediate needs, and, as if for the first time, we begin to see one-another as “Americans.”

We’re seeing this kind of reaction here at home. Local Valley charities are helping provide disaster relief to Californians. The Arizona Cardinals are once again accommodating the displaced San Diego Chargers with some practice field space, and possibly a stadium for a game.

And there will be more examples of people helping their “fellow Americans” in the coming days. Watch for it, as you tune in and log on for “nonstop coverage.”

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