The disaster sympathy photo op

I’ve never survived a major disaster. At least, not to the point of needing help from an organization like the Red Cross. The only thing that comes close is the ice storm of 1998, during which my home, like many others, lost power for an extended period. After the lack of power combined with the drop in temperature made our home inhabitable, my family moved in with an uncle in Laval who still had power. Others in the extended family did the same, so we had a sort of extended family reunion for a while. It only lasted a couple of days, and it was inconvenient more than it was scary. The only loss our family experienced from the event was the food that spoiled.

So I can’t really put myself in the shoes of the people of Lac Mégantic today, or those of southern Alberta in the past few weeks, or people in any other emergency situation in which lives have been lost, homes destroyed and other damage — physical, mental and economic — impossible to calculate.

Another thing I can’t see myself doing is dragging a camera behind me as I talk to people who have just lost loved ones, trying to show my best sympathetic face. It’s not that I think this is wrong, or that I don’t sincerely feel for these people, but it just feels fake, like it’s all being done for people’s entertainment, even if that might not be the case (and even if many people involved in the disaster actually really want to talk to the media and get their message out).

On Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Lac Mégantic. A press release sent out in the morning said there would be a “photo opportunity” for accredited media and then a press conference an hour later. I had already wondered about the usefulness of political leaders rushing to disaster sites, but the fact that his visit literally called for a photo op bugged me.

It’s not just Harper, though. Pauline Marois had been there the night before. Thomas Mulcair also went down, doing his best to remind us why we hate politicians. All three made themselves visible to the cameras.

Was there a purpose to this, other than political? Was it just to avoid the optics of not being there?

Not having survived a natural disaster (and not being in Lac Mégantic currently), I don’t know if it’s reassuring to the residents that political leaders come to town like this. I imagine it must at least be reassuring that they’re taking the situation seriously. Though that’s tempered when those politicians disappear just as quickly as they appeared.

And there’s the downside. The higher up you go in terms of political power, the more overhead is required for a visit like this. Everything from public relations to security. Could some of that effort be better used helping the community in a more tangible way? Or worse, could this all be disruptive to rescue and recovery efforts? Especially when the prime minister of Canada isn’t really coordinating anything directly relevant here?

I honestly don’t know what to think. I’m one of those people who believes that political leaders are as important for the power of their words as their intelligence or accounting skills. And I know that if I was a political leader, I would want to be where things are happening, if only to see what’s going on for myself, to inform any decisions I would make that would affect that community, and to offer whatever emotional help I could to people who have gone through so much.

But still, I can’t shake that feeling that this is all just for show. And it’s not just because of that press release for the photo op.

Sad, sympathetic anchors

It’s not just political leaders that have been putting on a show for the cameras in the wake of this disaster. The news media has been making a big splash of this as well, beyond just covering it like the big story that it is. On Monday, CTV and CBC both co-anchored their local newscasts from Lac Mégantic, with one anchor just outside the evacuation zone, presenting stories about the aftermath of the disaster (including interviews they did themselves), and another anchor in the Montreal studio handling the rest of the news. On Monday night, CTV National News will be anchored from Lac Mégantic.

I’ve never really understood this idea of anchoring newscasts on location. Does it help my understanding of the disaster to see that Lisa LaFlamme has travelled to rural Quebec instead of doing the news from her Toronto studio? Does being on location make her more connected to the story and better able to present it to us? Are the extra costs required to anchor a newscast on location worth the payoff, journalistically? Are the producers of the newscast as focused on presenting us the latest news in the best way possible when they’re distracted by the complicated technical setup? Does Paul Karwatsky and Debra Arbec talking with reporters standing right next to them instead of speaking to them through a double-box screen make them better able to juggle all the information that’s being presented on air?

I don’t know that either. But once again, this looks an awful lot like something put on for show, designed to make us emotionally connected to a story that shouldn’t need help to be dramatic. Like the special graphics they create, and the soft piano music they play when they show those graphics.

It feels like I’m seeing a performance masquerading as action.

I hope I’m wrong.

Journalists: Donate your overtime

I’ve never been one to rush to donate money in the wake of a disaster. Working in a newsroom has desensitized me to a lot of awful things that happen in the world. But I figure the least I could do is refuse to profit off of it.

In 2010, when an earthquake devastated Haiti, Montreal media sprung into action, and devoted extra resources to covering it. I was called in to do an extra shift on overtime, and donated an amount equivalent to that overtime pay to the Red Cross. Unable to travel to the disaster area and do tangible helpful things (I probably would have been a burden more than anything else anyway), I volunteered for them by doing the job that I love, and, as awful as this may sound, during a time when the job is at its most enjoyable, or at least the most rewarding.

On Sunday, I was already scheduled to work, but my boss asked me to stay an extra hour on overtime to better manage the load of stories. I stayed an hour and a half on overtime, which works out to about an extra $100. That money is now in the hands of the Red Cross.

As I did in 2010, I encourage other journalists and those in related professions to do the same. You don’t have to give from your regular salary. But if directly or indirectly you worked paid overtime or got other financial benefit from extra work because of this disaster, consider turning that unexpected extra work into a donation and giving that extra money to people who need it.

The Red Cross has a special fund set up for Lac Mégantic relief. You can donate easily here.

Then, at least, you can be sure that the show you helped put on did some tangible good. That the only people who truly profited from it are those who have suffered the most.

31 thoughts on “The disaster sympathy photo op

  1. Drew H

    Wow. You hit the nail on the head from an ethical and human perspective. Sadly, as my old journalism prof told us keeners on the first day, “Remember, the first rule of Journalism is that if it bleeds, it leads”.

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  2. Just Me ( real one )

    Quote : ‘ I’ve never really understood this idea of anchoring newscasts on location. ‘ Neither do I. Down here in the States, we were once treated to the egregious example of CBS anchorman Dan Rather tied, like Ulysses/Odysseus, to a palm tree in Florida minutes before a hurricane was expected to strike the state !

    –Just Me ( Real Just Me )

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  3. Steve Rukavina

    Awesome that you are donating your overtime.

    Disagree with you on the other points.

    Keep up the good work!

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  4. Tim

    For high ranking politicians, like the PM or Premiere, I think there is also a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” component as well. If you don’t show up, it looks like you don’t care.

    Mulcair’s visit really annoyed me. I don’t see a need for the leader of the opposition to show up. That is just taking up time and resources that could be used otherwise. I bugs me because I have a lot of respect for the guy, but he was obviously making hay while the sun shines.

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    1. Jacky

      In a disaster of this sort the Prime Minister of the country and the Premier of the province have to show up. They need to see the situation first hand as they control the Government coffers. If they want to they can mobilize massive amounts of help.

      Mulcair and Legault were a complete waste of time and resources and they should be thoroughly chastised for showing up and even more for their stupid comments.

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      1. Fagstein Post author

        They need to see the situation first hand as they control the Government coffers. If they want to they can mobilize massive amounts of help.

        But do they? Does the premier or prime minister personally make decisions about relief efforts? What do they do that local emergency services, the SQ and Transportation Safety Board officials don’t?

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        1. Karine76

          Dubya’s fly over the Katrina ravaged areas is still considered one of the major blunders of his presidency because he was not on site to see things first hand. Even he says so. With the Canadian political situation the way it is, if Stephen Harper hadn’t shown up would be seen as him not caring for Quebecers. Pauline Marois is also doing her job by showing up, comforting citizens is also part of the job description of being a politician. But I agree that the other political party leaders don’t need to be there, that looks like a photo op to me especially when they start criticizing the government, rightly or wrongly, before any hard evidence that support any finger pointing has come out.

          Every time I see Anderson Cooper show up in a disaster area with his black t-shirt on, I shake my head. So in a way I do have doubts about the usefulness of anchors being on site. Journalists on the other hand are doing their job.

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        2. Tim

          The PM makes a call and the Canadian Armed Forces are mobilized wherever he wants without any question. No one else can do that.

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          1. Fagstein Post author

            The PM makes a call and the Canadian Armed Forces are mobilized wherever he wants without any question. No one else can do that.

            But he hasn’t done that here, as far as I know. Was there ever a question that that might happen? (And isn’t it the Minister of National Defence who makes those calls anyway? Why wouldn’t he also be present if this was an issue of armed forces use?)

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          2. Marc

            The PM makes a call and the Canadian Armed Forces are mobilized

            After receiving a request from a mayor or premier. He can’t unilaterely do that entirely on his own accord. Although Harper seems to think otherwise, the PM is not a dictator.

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    2. Marc

      Mulcair’s visit really annoyed me.

      More so than Harper showing up with 17 limos and a massive posse? Even though all the while, he knew everything about Mike Duffy’s illegal expense claims.

      I don’t see a need for the leader of the opposition to show up

      He’s a Quebecer and had a moral obligation to be there.

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      1. Fagstein Post author

        Even though all the while, he knew everything about Mike Duffy’s illegal expense claims.

        What do Mike Duffy’s expense claims have to do with a disaster area?

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      2. Tim

        Harper showed up with nothing of the sort that you have stated. You don’t like Harper then say so. But no reason for untruths and outright lies.

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  5. Derek Cassoff

    It rained in Toronto yesterday, so the national media will likely be turning its attention elsewhere now.

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  6. Steve Kowch

    Well first off Steve, it is kind of difficult to pick on your thoughts and ideas after telling us you donate your overtime payment to the Red Cross. Gotta say, this is a first and I’ve been around a long time and made plenty of overtime covering these kind of stories.

    So good on you.

    That said, here is why you’re wrong about most of the stuff you talk about.

    The PMO notice about the “photo op” is to help the media on the scene do its job. Stephen Harper, like him or hate him is the prime minister … head of the government that can provide millions of dollars in relief to the residents and businesses. It is also his role to go to disaster scenes to comfort families of the victims. The media needs to know where he is going to be to show the images on TV, print and online. It’s part of the story and telling the media when and where he will be available is important to the media.

    It is also the role of the leader of the opposition and the other political leaders to see first hand what happened so that they can provide informed criticism of what the government is not doing. Harper is there to get first hand knowledge to make sure his government does its job to provide the help that is needed.

    About going to the scene and talking to the families of victims. This is not a job everyone can do. I spent years doing these kind of interviews for The Montreal Star, The Gazette, Sunday Express, Daily News, CJAD and CFRB. I wrote in a recent blog – http://www.kowchmedia.com/blogs/archives/274-on-the-kowch-twinkle-rudbergs-love-story – about these assignments:

    “I have too many memories of dead people I never knew. As a Montreal newspaper reporter in the late ’60s, ’70s and part of the ’80s, I wrote human interest stories about victims of crime, accidents, fires and disasters. For twenty years I knocked on doors of family and friends to talk to them about the loss of a child, sibling, spouse or parent. When you write about death, details never leave you. Even something you wrote four decades ago, the information remains as fresh in your mind as if you had knocked on the door only yesterday.”

    But how else can the media tell the story of what happened if they don’t go to the scene and interview the survivors and the families. It’s not about being fake … believe me when you’re at these scenes your emotions are impacted when hearing their stories. You aren’t human if these stories don’t put a lump in your throat or tears in your eyes.

    As for Lisa Laflame being on the scene Monday night … I thought she did a fantastic job. I have sent reporters, anchors, producers and hosts to these kind of disaster scenes because being there provides the opportunity to understand the story and tell the story better than staying in a studio.

    The producers aren’t distracted by the technical demands – there are technical producers who take care of getting the newscast or show to air. I always sent a technical producer to handle those duties. Producers on the scene also get a better understanding of the story and help the reporters or hosts chase the right angles and line up the right guests.

    Does it cost money to do these kind of remote broadcasts. Sure but it’s the cost of providing the best coverage you can. You can argue all you want it ain’t worth the money and say Lisa could have done just as good a job from the studio in Toronto. But you’d be wrong. She is playing in the big leagues where my motto has always been go big or stay home.

    Breaking news is what I love about the job and believe me when I say this … the soon to be owners of Montreal’s New AM600 are fully aware of my philosophy of being there on the big stories and support it. But you have to pick the stories to do this. A runaway train that blows up half a town leaving up to 50 people dead is the story to be there for.

    As for the soft piano music under the images going to a break … would you prefer their regular pounding production music going to a commercial break during this kind of coverage. The US networks have their theme music with different deliveries … up tempo and sombre to match the mood of the story.

    You ask a lot of pointed questions and I respect that. No one else covers the media in Montreal like you do and it is a healthy discussion to have. But as someone who has been there and done that and will be doing it again … I felt it important to at least give the other side of the story and explain why the media does what it does at disaster scenes.

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    1. Fagstein Post author

      It is also his role to go to disaster scenes to comfort families of the victims.

      But is it his role to appear on camera while doing so?

      The media needs to know where he is going to be to show the images on TV, print and online. It’s part of the story and telling the media when and where he will be available is important to the media.

      By all means, provide an itinerary to the media. My issue wasn’t that the PMO shared where Harper would be, it’s that it staged a photo op involving disaster victims.

      But how else can the media tell the story of what happened if they don’t go to the scene and interview the survivors and the families.

      I am of course not suggesting that the media not go to the scene and interview survivors.

      I have sent reporters, anchors, producers and hosts to these kind of disaster scenes because being there provides the opportunity to understand the story and tell the story better than staying in a studio.

      How, exactly? What do anchors say or do on air when they’re in a disaster area that gives the viewer more information than if they’d stayed in their studio and relied on their reporters to tell stories?

      would you prefer their regular pounding production music going to a commercial break during this kind of coverage.

      That music usually plays with video of a teaser of what’s coming up. Since there’s no teaser here, it’s kind of moot. They could just say we’ll be right back and go straight to commercial. Or if they want to show more video or stills from the scene, they could play it to no music at all. Using different tempos for different moods is one thing, but bringing out disaster sympathy music is another, I find.

      I felt it important to at least give the other side of the story and explain why the media does what it does at disaster scenes.

      I appreciate that, and hopefully other readers do too.

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    2. Tim

      Lisa Laflamme doing an excellent job? Seriously? She is the poster child for the complete decline of network news. I doubt she knows she has both a left and a right foot. A true disgrace to journalism at any level.

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      1. Fagstein Post author

        Lisa Laflamme doing an excellent job? Seriously? She is the poster child for the complete decline of network news.

        If you want anyone who doesn’t already agree with you to do so, you’re going to have to explain that using examples. Lobbing insults isn’t an argument.

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  7. Kevin

    For all that you write about media you seem to have missed a fundamental component of television news.

    TV is about emotion as much, if not more, than it is about information.

    Having an anchor sitting somewhere other than behind a desk is, all by itself, a sign of how important the story is. And to be honest the anchor’s duties do not change very much whether they are in studio or in the field. But by having the anchor and a remote location crew onhand it gives everyone from that station who is there a much higher chance of doing a better job of telling the stories involved, and letting the people affected speak in their own words.

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    1. Fagstein Post author

      TV is about emotion as much, if not more, than it is about information.

      Right. My question is, is it appropriate that TV newscasts are structured in such a way as to prompt a particular emotional response? It just seems a bit like we’re being told how to feel.

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      1. Kevin

        There are many TV reports that do try to manipulate how you feel — music, images, slow-motion. It can be done quite overtly.

        But giving people the opportunity to show their emotions is also necessary and useful, and standing there talking to someone in person will do this much better than talking to them on the phone, or sending them emails.

        It’s not a question of shoving a microphone at someone and saying ‘how do you feel’. That’s amateurish and crass.

        But asking someone about the events of Friday night, what they went through and what they saw, and you will see the emotion on their face plain as day. They will willingly share it.

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        1. Fagstein Post author

          giving people the opportunity to show their emotions is also necessary and useful, and standing there talking to someone in person will do this much better than talking to them on the phone, or sending them emails.

          Right. But does an anchor need to be present to accomplish this? Isn’t this what reporters are for?

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  8. Dilbert

    The disaster photo op is a moment to get the public to focus, to give the media (you guys) a frame for the story, and shows that the situation is serious and of a level of importance that these people have come personally to attend it.

    I cannot imagine after all your time in media that you aren’t aware of that basic concept.

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    1. Fagstein Post author

      The disaster photo op is a moment to get the public to focus, to give the media (you guys) a frame for the story

      Are you suggesting that without the photo op, the public wouldn’t care about this story and the media wouldn’t be able to properly report on it?

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      1. Dilbert

        I am saying that without it, the public would feel that the politicians don’t consider it as important as it is. The photo op is the “we care” moment, a point where they (gasp) lead Quebecers and Canadians. Shocking, isn’t it? If they were more interested in something else, perhaps the public’s attention would be there too.

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  9. Pierre Renard

    A thing blew up. People died. Technicians are trying to figure out how it happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Meanwhile journalists are going around asking people how they feel about it. “How do you feel?” I find it ridiculous too. I’m embarrassed for the disaster porn report. Haven’t even looked at it.

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    1. Fagstein Post author

      A thing blew up. People died. Technicians are trying to figure out how it happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Meanwhile journalists are going around asking people how they feel about it. “How do you feel?”

      How people feel is news. It doesn’t replace things like why the train moved or what the economic cost is, but it’s a huge element of the story.

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  10. Robert Struthers

    I am starting to get a sick feeling that the electronic media is starting to exploit the Lac-Mégantic tragedy…

    Reply

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