Monday, December 27, 2004

Newspapers Provide More Detail, Much More Drama than TV in Tsunamis Coverage

Both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times this morning (Dec. 27) were able to provide much more detail, and even much greater drama, in their coverage of the South Asian (and now East African) tsunami disaster than anything on television.

Although Fox continued the pattern it established from the outset of more extensive TV coverage than CNN, Fox ideology began to intrude in an unfortunate way. For instance, this morning the network began touting the Bush Administration's relief efforts. But the $15 million in aid the U.S. has offered thus far is a pittance compared with the billions of dollars international relief agencies say are needed over a period extending forward many months.

As the death toll mounted by Monday noon to the latest estimate of 24,000, The Los Angeles Times and New York Times both used their press time figures of 13,000. So in that respect, TV had an advantage. But it was a slight advantage compared to the very detailed and even eloquent reports of Shankhadeep Choudhury and Paul Watson in the LAT and Amy Waldman in the NYT, both datelined Madras.

The NYT has long had a great tradition, going back to the Titanic sinking, of disaster reporting, and the paper performed brilliantly this morning, with a substantial and passionate secondary color article by the redoutable Robert McFadden, writing out of his base in New York, superior graphics and even an eloquent editorial.

"The underlying story of this tragedy," the NYT editorial concluded, "is the overpowering, amoral mechanics of the earth's surface, the movement of plates that grind and shift and slide against each other with profound indifference to anything but the pressures that drive them. Whenever those forces punctuate human history, they do so tragically. They demonstrate, geologically speaking, how ephemeral our presence is." A Daily Telegraph editorial in London was in the same vein.

The LAT editorial will have to wait for tomorrow. That comes from having a half-time editorial page editor like Michael Kinsley.

Both the NYT and the LAT used "waves" in their headlines, and the LAT used "towering waves" in its lead. Both to some extent are misnomers. Tsunamis are better understood as surges of vast quantities of water onto the land, which, when they drain away take many human beings and much property and debris along with them. It is not so much a crashing wave, as a sudden rise of water, sometimes preceded with a draining away of water from regular levels just before it begins. In this sense, the NYT's use of the phrase "walls of water" was better than "waves."

But The LAT, in a sidebar by science and medical writer Thomas Maugh, captured best the nature of tsunami. "Although a tsunami occasionally appears as a massive wave, more often it is like a fast-moving tide that keeps rising well past the normal high water level," Maugh wrote. He used the expertise of USC's Costas Synolakis, one of the world's more prominent tsunami experts.

TV pictures of the incoming water that were available conveyed the surge effect more than showing actual waves.

I particularly had to admire some of McFadden's lines this morning, sometimes not even using complete sentences to convey the immensity of the disaster. In his second paragraph, McFadden simply wrote: "Sunbathers and snorkelers at luxury resorts swept out to sea. Hindus drowned during ritual bathing. A battered orphanage and missing children, Entire villages washed away. Fishing boats smashed. Homes, churches, cars, buses, livestock gone. A lighthouse toppled. A prison wrecked and the inmates gone. And when the water receded, beaches strewn with the dead, bodies in treetops and a girl impaled on a fence."

This is inspired stuff, more graphic than anything on television, and it displays the good judgment of NYT editors in assigning a prime local writer to bring together and back up on-the-scene reports, just as the LAT did during the Gulf wars.

This story is only beginning. It's going to be on everyone's mind in the days and weeks ahead.


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