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.