How special is New York? Even as the waters were still rising last night, before the extent of the hurricane damage was known, folks on Twitter — New Yorkers and others — were already debating that.
First up was Jack Shafer, Reuters Opinion columnist and longtime media critic. Anticipating the coverage to come, Shafer fired off:
To which Shafer got hit with a call from journalist Seth Mnookin to cut the snark. Instead of folding, Shafer raised:
In light of the saturation coverage that Hurricane Sandy has received, it’s worthwhile thinking about how much of it has to do with where it happened. This is not in any way to minimize the effects of the hurricane: they are serious, by either human or economic measures. Still it’s notable that this the kind of coverage that Sandy has gotten is usually reserved for catastrophes with death tolls in the thousands (and much greater than that given to, say, the blackout the cut power to most of India).
One reason for this is that natural disasters are, as Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Diane Brady points out, a godsend to to TV reporters who “love to show themselves taking on Mother Nature.” And obviously there’s parochial interest involved. Yes, a hurricane in New York gets saturation coverage; everything in New York gets saturation coverage.
It’s not just cable news or New York media for which the hurricane was essentially the only story of the day. The same is true of newspapers around the world — Le Monde in France, Dagen Nyheter in Sweden.
If they look inside themselves, New Yorkers will concede that Shafer has a point: we are good at advertising our troubles. (Do you know the word “kvetch?” If not, well, almost every New Yorker does. Look it up.) So, though, are other people. New York gets a leg up here because a significant part of the rest of the world believes that New York belongs to them, too.
There’s a limit to this. Outside the West the picture becomes less clear. Over at the Asahi Shimbun the Sandy story is played — special thanks to Google Translate for making this easier to sort out — much less prominently. There will undoubtedly be some who draw from this the conclusion that the U.S. and European press greatly exaggerates the import of news that affects New York. By body count, in worldwide standards the Hurricane Sandy story doesn’t rate.
A better lesson to pull out here may be not that the story of a storm in New York is overplayed, but that the human element of catastrophe outside media centers is somewhat underplayed. Clearly the significance of a story is related to the number of deaths. That, however, is not all of it.
How much a catastrophe is perceived to matter also depends on how well the press can tell the story not just of deaths but of the lives that are disrupted. Reporters do the most justice to those stories (say, the man who walks eight miles to work over the Brooklyn Bridge so he can keep his job) when they are on home turf. That’s partly because up close it’s easier to see past the death toll to stories of adversity and perseverance. And also because New Yorkers can vent their troubles as loudly as anyone in the world.