Sea by Heidi R. Kling: News coverage of the 2004 Tsunami

Today for our June Book of the Month, Sea by Heidi R. Kling, we have another lesson related to the 2004 Tsunami, which sets the background to Sea. Today — since my “real” job is in TV news (I’m a producer) — we’re focusing on how the Tsunami was covered by the news — and how the news coverage went away before the story was really over.

Let me start with the basics of how big news stories like this happen behind the scenes …

Breaking News

It starts out with the event itself — a major earthquake; a huge tsunami. Initially, journalists don’t know just how much an impact these sorts of things will have — but we jump on the breaking news. We put together flashy graphics and maps and get experts on the phone. As the story progresses, we press for video and live reports.

National and international news outlets (CNN, FOX News, BBC, etc.) immediately begin sending reporters and photographers and live crews to the scene — sending video and reports back to affiliates, like your local TV news station.

Of course, we don’t just turn around and show the raw video to the viewers at home.

Legally, I’m not sure we could.

Because, you see, when it comes to horrific events like the 2004 Tsunami (or events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, etc.) — the raw video footage shows some pretty gruesome things. Blood and guts. Horribly disfiguring injuries. Dead bodies.

Do these images depict the true devastation of the event? Yes. Are they too disturbing to put on TV? Yes. And it’s the job of journalists like yours truly to sift through this footage and find images that still tell the story, without making the viewer get sick over their morning bowl of Cheerios. Ah, yes, this is the glamorous behind the scenes life of a TV news producer. I can honestly tell you I’ve seen some really awful, disturbing things in my career — things I’d rather forget, but can’t because the images are burned into my brain. Be grateful you don’t have to see everything I’ve seen. I can only imagine how much more horrific it is for the journalists who are on the ground, seeing it in person.

Continuing Coverage

As a story like the 2004 Tsunami develops, TV stations begin developing a format for continuing coverage. We all compete with each other to “own” the story. Is this crass? Sure. But it’s also the nature of the business. All news outlets are in competition with each other to get the most viewers; the most readers. To be number one. Part of how we do that is in our coverage of big stories like the Tsunami.

In other news …

But despite all of our shortcomings, perhaps the biggest is the day when the journalists pack up and go home. Eventually, something else comes along to take the place as the “next big story” and reporters turn their focus onto the big new story. That usually means the “old story” is left behind and forgotten — even when the story is still going on.

A recent example of this happened just last month — when news coverage of the flooding in Tennessee fell by the wayside because reporters were too focused on the Gulf Oil Spill and the Times Square bombing plot. Both were big stories, but so was the flooding — and news coverage suffered because the industry couldn’t adequately divide its attention three ways.

What happened with the 2004 Tsunami (and with Katrina, and Haiti, and countless other natural disasters) is that the story got “old” — again, it’s crass, I know. But it’s the nature of the biz. Another big story came along, and the reporters went home. But when the reporters went home — people in Indonesia were still recovering from the Tsunami. To this day, the region is still facing the aftermath of the disaster — but you’d never know it judging by what you see on TV and in newspapers.

That’s why the work of relief agencies like the fictional group featured in Sea are so important. Because when the journalists go home, they’re still there in the trenches doing everything they can to help out.

For the comments: Have any questions about working in the news, and/or news coverage of disasters? Leave them in the comments & I’ll do my best to reply.

4 thoughts on “Sea by Heidi R. Kling: News coverage of the 2004 Tsunami

Add yours

  1. Thanks for that nutshell explanation. This was one of the reasons I couldn’t hack it in news: I’d seen one too many little girls get kidnapped and murdered one particular summer in Pittsburgh and I just didn’t have think enough skin. Something on the scale of this tsunami would definitely been too much. Thanks for all that you do.

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