Japan: news coverage or disaster porn?

The images pile up as inexorably as … well, the cars, trucks, boats and trains caught in  Japan’s tsunami, so many life-size vehicles and houses turned into so much flotsam. The only problem is, it’s not just steel and wood twisting in the water. Human beings were washed away, or inundated, and their bodies are now washing back in, and surfacing. As are their images: lifeless and sea-washed, observed by grieving family members and exhausted rescue workers — and us.

Do we look? Do we look away? If we do not look, are we ignoring the plight of fellow human beings, irresponsibly contributing to our own numbness in the face of others’ tragedy? If we do look, is there a line to be wary of crossing, somewhere between responsibly informing ourselves and becoming consumers of disaster porn?

Even when I was a working journalist, I was a limited consumer of media, easily overwhelmed by television’s blare, and underwhelmed by newspaper’s short bites and heavy advertising. I tended more toward (public) radio and magazines. And then came 9/11 … I stopped watching television altogether on 9/12/01, when stations began re-runs of bodies falling from the towers, desperate suicides fleeing flames. Even public radio and long-feature magazines like The Atlantic turned jingo-istic to my mind.

And so, over the years, like many others, I have turned to selected Internet venues as my news sources; this trend is having unfortunate consequences. We are no longer regularly subjected to perspectives different from our own (although mass media have historically been oriented toward maintaining the status quo more than portraying or encouraging real diversities). It is even more lamentable that the tenets of impartiality and objective reporting have fallen into fairly complete disrepair. Back in my journalism days, we did know that our attempts to be impartial and objective were incomplete and imperfect, even at their best; but at least we were trying. It seems all to be infotainment and spin now.

The media ethics class I took in j-school back in the ’80s did not prepare us for the overconsumption of instantly available global horror stories. Religious ethics classes in the early years of this century didn’t, either.

But I don’t really need to be told. As a child in the 1960s, I knew the Viet and American dead on the television should not have been there (not dead, and not on television). My heart tells me now — and my mind believes — that it is disrespectful to fill our screens with the images of the dead in the Japanese disaster, just as it was wrong in the endless line of preceding disasters that have filled our insatiable craving for “news.”

I suppose these images are necessary to tell the whole story, and to spur relief contributions and efforts. I suppose my ideas that they are disrespectful to the dead are as old-fashioned as I am apparently becoming. I suppose I am being a spoiled and soft first-worlder in my reactions.

So be it. I adopt the spiritual practice of “custody of the eyes” just as I would in the face of any other pornography, and turn away from these images, when they come before me. I attempt mindfulness as I decide to turn away: I turn with prayer, as a gesture of respect. I am not trying to escape. I have made my contributions as I can, and if ways to do more become apparent, I will.

But for now, at the very least, I will draw the sheet of not-looking over the images of the dead. Those of you I have seen, I remember that you are people, that you loved, that you are missed and grieved, that you will live on in the memories of those who revere you. I will think of the Japanese life that I witnessed on a brief trip to this part of the world — the bustle and bullet trains of Osaka, the quiet deer and temple statuary of Nara, the tea-dyed brown hair and platform shoes of uniformed high-school kids, geisha stepping carefully along evening sidewalks.

I do not know you, Japan, but I know beauty is in you, and will return to you.

Deer of Nara Park (by Evan Pike)

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2 Responses to Japan: news coverage or disaster porn?

  1. Lynn Diener says:

    Bless you for posting this. I am personally at a point of overload. My heart can’t break anymore over this or it will render me useless. I have a very dear friend that lives there, and just hearing her pain is enough. I stopped watching the news the first day, and then only in small intervals. I hadn’t heard from her yet and I was trying to figure out how close this disaster came to her.

    It does feel very much like the 9/11 coverage or the coverage after the last tsunami in ’04(?). I just can’t watch. I love the idea of the custody of eyes. The windows to my soul have let in far too much already. I’m choosing to periodically catch up with my friend on Facebook and to read print reports, but those are enough- and gratefully, usually involve few pictures.

    I’m sending my prayer, I’m sending a donation, and I’m sending my love and compassion (which all feel much too small).

    I agree it’s probably the only way to jolt those with money to give, sadly, and that’s why it’s on all the time. What kind of a world do we live in where simply naming another’s tragedy isn’t enough for us to feel compassion and act? Instead we need proof that it really is tragic.

    Thank you for putting words to the angst I’ve been feeling over the news.

    peace be within us all,
    Lynn

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