Let’s Ditch Disaster Porn

Media coverage of catastrophes used to evoke compassion and inspire us to take action. Has our over-exposure to disaster porn ruined that?

Let’s Ditch Disaster Porn 1

Let’s Ditch Disaster Porn

Disaster porn is defined by the Australia Macquarie dictionary as media coverage of disasters which seeks to

“satisfy the pleasure that viewers take in seeing other people’s misfortunes, as by constantly repeating vision of an event, often without commentary or context”.

Macquarie

The term has roots in fictional depictions of disasters, such as war films. However, it has become a fitting description for much news coverage of catastrophes.

The term entered this dictionary in 2011: the same year as the Queensland floods which claimed 33 human lives and damaged 28 000 homes. It likely gained popularity as a descriptor of the continuous scenes of tragedy displayed by the almost constant continuous media coverage.

The coverage prompted an outpouring of sympathy and aid from the general public. Therefore, at the time it was widely agreed that the effects of larger public awareness and sympathy towards catastrophic events negated the moral ambiguity of disaster porn. Despite the the gratuitous and often exploitative nature of disaster porn, it was acknowledged that ‘it does much more good than harm’.

Was this ever true? If it was, it certainly is not now. The birth of 24 hour news coverage was damaging enough, but with the rise of smartphones and thus increased accessibility to news throughout the day (exacerbated by social media), our consumption of bad news has rocketed. As a result of our over-exposure to shocking and upsetting scenes, we have become simultaneously addicted and desensitised by disaster porn. And not only does this have a damaging effect on our wellbeing, it undoes any positive effect this type of coverage could have had in the first place.

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Why do we find bad news so enticing?

Psychologists argue that humans are predisposed to be more attracted to bad news, as it enables us to identify danger and react accordingly. However, if you survey a group of people, they tend to say that they prefer reading and watching good news. Furthermore, many of the public even feel that news coverage broadcasts too much bad news. Throughout the pandemic, many households became increasingly bored and frustrated with the constant coronavirus coverage and the lack of any other stories on the evening news.

So why do we continue to feed this negativity bias, against our proclaimed preferences?

Our over-consumption of distressing news stories is not entirely our fault. Media sites know that – due to this ‘negative bias’ – bad news garners more clicks than good news. Therefore, there is simply more bad news pushed at us than good. In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, news broadcasters sites saw their ratings ‘soar’ as they displayed images of what journalist Susan Llewelyn Leach deemed as nothing other than ‘gratuitous gore’.

Furthermore, this is fed back into the algorithms responsible for curating our news feed. Our feed is designed to suggest the articles which we are most likely to interact with, based on our past reactions. Therefore, the more bad news we consume, the more that is pushed at us.

What makes disaster porn harmful?

Desensitisation

The more graphic content we consume, the less shocking it becomes. This continuous desensitisation dampens the compassion we may feel towards victims of the catastrophes broadcasted into our living rooms.

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This can also harm the victims of the catastrophe in question. Media coverage will have to voyeuristically rely on increasingly graphic, exploitative, scenes in order to still attract public interest. This causes journalists to hunt for more and more disturbing and personal content, often disregarding the privacy and dignity of catastrophe victims.

Hopelessness, Helplessness and Immobilisation

Too often, catastrophe journalism instils in us such a bleak outlook on a situation that we lose all hope of it being resolved. In a study looking at how teachers could motivate children to try to make a difference about climate change, it was found that when fear-based messaging caused an individual to feel a particularly low level of agency or control, it was likely to backfire and immobilise that individual.

Therefore, ironically, the graphic reporting that will supposedly call us to arms dries up what hope we may have had. Having retreated into this state of hopelessness, we don’t see any way to proactively help.

How can we achieve balance?

Of course, it is often inevitable and important that we interact with bad news. It is a consequence of evolution that we find bad news enticing. And there certainly is an argument that it is important for us to have a social awareness of the suffering, and need for aid, of people across the globe.

Doomscrolling

However, if we do not reevaluate our consumption of media, we can find ourselves addicted to disaster porn, which harms both its subjects and ourselves. Doomscrolling is what has tipped our genuine concern into an alarming thirst for distressing scenes. The lengthy amount of time we spend consuming bad news online encourages our personal algorithm and our news providers to push more negative information at us. We need to limit our time, be more careful about what content we choose to interact with, both for our own state of mind, and also to start teaching media sites that lazy ‘catastrophe journalism’ is not the way forward.

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If you find you have a habit of doomscrolling, check out here how you can rebalance your news consumption. Take a look at where you get your news from, whether in print, digitally or on social media. Analyse the type of reporting. A good way of gauging if something has been written out of sensationalism of genuine concern is by checking throughout the piece to see if it signposts any ways you can actually help.

We usually fall into the habit of doomscrolling because we are not consciously interacting with the news. We are reading the material pushed at us, but we are not thinking about it actively. This is key to our consumption of news media. Some of the graphic images shown to us could inspire compassion and action if we were to pause and digest the stories, rather than just move on, chasing the next shock.

View the original article at itstimetologoff.com

By It's Time to Log Off

Time To Log Off was founded in 2014 by digital entrepreneur, tech ethicist, and author Tanya Goodin. Tanya was inspired to set-up Time To Log Off after over 20 years working exclusively in the online world. She is an award-winning digital entrepreneur: twice a finalist for the Entrepreneur of the Year award, and for the Blackberry Outstanding Women in Technology award.

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