W. Joseph Campbell

The enduring appeal for journalists of the would-be apocalyptic

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post on May 16, 2011 at 6:54 am

The Wall Street Journal  over the weekend carried an intriguing commentary about the appeal of the apocalyptic, a commentary pegged to predictions of a Christian radio network that Saturday next will mark the end of days.

Terrible, but not apocalyptic

“Why are such apocalyptic prophecies so common in human history? What are their emotional and cognitive underpinnings?” the Journal commentary asked.

“In most doomsday scenarios,” it noted, “destruction is followed by redemption, giving us a sense of both fear and hope. The ostensible ‘end’ is usually seen as a transition to a new beginning and a better life to come.”

When posed in a slightly different manner, the question has relevance for journalists: What accounts for the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic that often emerges in the reporting of upheaval and disasters?

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year, the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic helps define and animate such coverage. And it helps explain why news reporting of Hurricane Katrina‘s aftermath in 2005 and of the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s was so distorted and exaggerated.

By “perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic,” I mean a tendency or eagerness among journalists “to identify and report on trends and developments that seem so exceptional or frightening as to be without precedent.”

This is not to characterize journalists “as morbid or macabre in their newsgathering,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “But they respond with undeniable excitement and energy when trends of exceptional and hazardous proportion seem to being taking hold.”

I write in Getting It Wrong that Hurricane Katrina – which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at the end of August 2005 – seemed in news reports to have unleashed “a disaster of almost biblical proportion: Storms and floods, death and mayhem; criminal gangs run amok in a city collapsing in chaos. New Orleans seemed to promise a descent into the truly apocalyptic. And for a time the reporting matched that premise: It was as if the some of most dreadful events imaginable were taking place in New Orleans.”

But little of the news media’s apocalyptic-like reporting of mayhem, violence, and anarchy in post-Katrina New Orleans proved true.

The “crack baby” scare, I write in Getting It Wrong, “was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research, a myth that had the effect of stigmatizing underprivileged children presumed to have been born damaged and despised as ‘crack babies.’”

The scare was based on the widely reported belief that prenatal exposure to crack cocaine would give rise to a generation of misfits, of children so mentally and physically damaged that they would forever be wards of the state.

Commentators turned to phrases such as “bio-underclass” to characterize the disaster they said lie ahead. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer invoked “bio-underclass” in 1989, declaring in a column in the Washington Post:

“Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”

To be sure, smoking crack during pregnancy is hardly risk-free: “neither prudent nor sensible,” I write.

However, I note, “the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure have proved more subtle than sweeping.” And biomedical research has found nothing akin to the “bio-underclass” that Krauthammer and others warned about more than 20 years ago.

Revisiting the media-driven myth of the crack baby is important, I argue in Getting It Wrong, because doing so permits “insights into a tendency among journalists to neglect or disregard the tentativeness that characterizes serious scientific and biomedical research.” They seize upon the would-be apocalyptic instead.

WJC

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