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Treating natural disasters like war zones hurts survivors

The media's search for "bad guys" after hurricanes gets us angry about all the wrong things

News coverage of natural disasters like hurricanes Harvey and Irma is often similar to coverage of war zones. There are flashy, dramatic graphics, wide helicopter shots of destruction on the ground, stories of heroism in the face of danger, and reporters broadcasting live from dangerous areas. Much of the language is similar too: Storms bring an “onslaught” of rain and winds; neighborhoods are caught in the “line of fire,” etc.

News networks do this because treating natural disasters like war gives them a compelling way to tell stories about storms like Harvey and Irma.

The problem is that war requires an enemy — some “bad guy” for people to fight against. And that need to find a bad guy has warped the focus of news coverage during natural disasters.

At the start of a disaster, the bad guy is usually “Mother Nature.” Reporters evoke images of Mother Nature’s “wrath” or “fury” when describing the damage caused by major storms, framing the story as a “humans versus Mother Nature” battle.

Once the initial disaster is over, the media turns its focus to dangerous survivors — “humans versus Mother Nature” becomes “police versus looters.”

Both frames make for good TV, but they also oversimplify the problem. Demonizing “Mother Nature” makes viewers overlook the human, political decisions that often contribute to the damage caused by disasters. And fear-mongering about looters can trigger an overly militaristic response in disaster areas, funneling resources toward maintaining “law and order” instead of actually helping survivors.

Watch the video above to see why the media’s search for “bad guys” during natural disasters can end up hurting survivors.

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