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Disaster Fatigue

When it comes to natural disasters, our attention spans are short. What happens once the media glare is gone?

By Patricia Smith

When a massive earthquake struck Haiti on January 12 and much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, was reduced to rubble, thousands of journalists from around the world rushed to the island nation in the Caribbean to report on the disaster. The scale of the devastation was shocking: more than 300,000 people killed, many more injured, and millions made homeless in what was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Practically overnight, celebrity news anchors like Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric, and Brian Williams were broadcasting live from Haiti.

Four months later, most of the reporters are gone, and the story of Haiti's desperate struggle to recover is largely absent from websites, news shows, and newspapers.

Some Haitians say they already feel forgotten. "Is anybody really hearing our call?" Joceline Magloire, a mother of five, still desperate for a tent and food, asked a wire service reporter.

This isn't the first time that a high-profile disaster has faded from view. This August will mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive storm to have ever hit the United States (see Voices). It devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Mississippi, leaving more than 1,800 people dead.

Five and a half years ago, a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean slammed into coastal regions of Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, killing 250,000 people in a single day and leaving another 2.5 million homeless. And two years ago, an earthquake in the Sichuan province of China killed 87,000 and left 5 million more homeless.

All three of these disasters were huge news stories when they happened. Journalists rushed in to provide wall-to-wall coverage, celebrities lent their star power to fund-raising efforts, presidents made speeches promising aid, and contributions poured in. But before long, the stomach-turning images of despair and the heart-wrenching rescue stories faded—and so did the news coverage.

"To some degree the media's behavior in these situations reflects the attention span of the public," says Butch Ward of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The actual process of recovery is not a matter of weeks or months, but years and decades. And, frankly, the general public is not all that interested."

From the media's perspective, there are several things at work. Sometimes another big story comes along to knock the disaster off the front pages, whether it's Iran's nuclear program or what's up with Tiger Woods. In many cases, there aren't many new angles to report after a while, and the images of destruction—especially on TV—begin to look the same.

And then there's the matter of money. The logistics of covering a disaster make it very costly, and a challenge in this era of shrinking news budgets. News teams have to be transported to distant locations, and then supplied with food, water, satellite phones, and even fuel to run their generators.

Just a few weeks after the Haiti earthquake, CBS began bringing staff home as fast as possible "because the story is not as central as it was, and because we've got to start worrying about all the money we're spending," says Paul Friedman of CBS News.

But while the cameras are there, they do have a real impact. They bring the story of the disaster into people's living rooms. News organizations also let people know how and where to donate money.

It's become common for celebrities to get involved—either because they genuinely want to use their media clout to help, or because it's free publicity for themselves—or both. A week and a half after the Haiti earthquake, a celebrity telethon organized by George Clooney aired live on dozens of TV channels and raised more than $57 million for relief efforts. The music from the event was available on iTunes the next day, with money raised going to relief efforts.

Hurricane Katrina

NBC news anchor Brian Williams called the Haiti earthquake the third global tragedy in five years where "we have arrived before the first responders," the first two being the Asian tsunami in late 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Some say the media's ability to arrive so swiftly and show the widespread suffering in a place like Port-au-Prince influences the public's reactions.

"It puts more pressure on governments around the world to respond," says Bill Hemmer, an anchor for Fox News Channel.

The horrifying images broadcast from New Orleans in the days after Katrina—bodies floating in the water, people stranded on rooftops, and babies close to death from dehydration—highlighted the federal government's failure to adequately respond and put pressure on the Bush administration to step up its efforts.

The problem is that the media spotlight doesn't last. News industry experts say that drop-off in coverage is almost inevitable, particularly in the current economic climate.

"Assigning someone to really follow that recovery amounts to the opening of a bureau," says Ward of the Poynter Institute. "There are very few news outlets in the U.S. that still have foreign bureaus anywhere, much less in Haiti or Indonesia."

The result is that it can be hard for those who are interested to find out what's happening with ongoing recovery efforts. And as the media interest dies down, the flow of money to relief groups slows.

"Once the media leaves, once the cameras stop rolling, the disaster doesn't go away just because it's not in people's consciousness back home," says Jeff Wright, the emergency response manager for the relief group World Vision. "It can lead to a misperception that the disaster is over, or that somehow the disaster's been fixed."

In fact, it can take a year just to get past the initial emergency response phase and then three to five years to restore some kind normalcy, relief experts say.

And at some point, even the communities themselves want to move on. By then, the lack of media attention can in itself symbolize a return to normalcy.

"For a while, there was never a story that didn't have the word 'Katrina' in it," says Gordon Russell, city editor of the New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune. "Now we write lots of stories that don't mention it."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, May 10, 2010)