Feeling about New Orleans depends on how much TV watched?

I’ve noticed a wide variation in how disturbed friends and miscellaneous New Englanders feel about the situation in New Orleans.  Some are very emotional while others don’t seem profoundly affected.  I have started asking folks “how much TV news coverage of the event have you seen?”  Feeling distraught seems to be correlated with watching TV.  Those who’ve read textual descriptions of the suffering in newspapers or on the Web aren’t anywhere near as upset as those who’ve seen video clips of people suffering.  Reading the lines “hundreds of people were screaming” isn’t as disturbing as seeing one person scream.


This seems to jibe with something a public TV producer once said:  “Television is useless for conveying information.  If you print out the script for the 20+ minutes of nightly network news it is only a few pages that you could read in a minute or two.  Very few facts are communicated during that newscast.  Television is good for making people feel a certain way.”


Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon?

12 thoughts on “Feeling about New Orleans depends on how much TV watched?

  1. At Burning Man, almost nobody saw it on TV until we got back. (Some left to come after seeing it though.) I had satellite TV in my RV. I told the guy I rented from, “I don’t need to know how to operate the TV, I won’t turn it on unless there is another World Trade Center…”

    But still, there were donation centers, and my magic phone booth had many people calling, in tears, to hear if loved ones had made it out. They cared, without the TV.

  2. Phil,

    You correctly point out that this is a correlation, but in the second paragraph you seem to be leaping to the conclusion that the direction of the causation is known.

    Correlation is not causation, in either direction, but it certainly seems simpler to assume that the cause is interest and the effect is watching.

    I have been watching TV coverage of Katrina because I have been feeling emotionially involved. I don’t normally watch any TV news programming, but I have been watching an hour or more for the past 10 days, since I became aware of the hurricane bearing down on New Orleans. I was interested so I watch.

    Wouldn’t you be surprised if people who didn’t care were spending their time watching?

  3. TV actually made me less upset (though the effect of watching TV coverage was still an emotional one, namely, that of relief).

    I watch very little television, and unless there’s a dire emergency, I never watch TV news. By last Thursday, I had became very upset by what I read online – “the Interdictor’s” first-person account, news sites, and various blogs. On Thursday night, I watched about 30 minutes of TV coverage (for the first time) of the event, and in a way, it set my mind at ease – seeing footage of rescue efforts, etc.

  4. I tend to agree, I’ve suspected for awhile that TV is partly responsible for more and more people’s seeming to have very strong feelings about matters that they don’t really know anything about.

  5. I was very upset, very emotionally disturbed. But I just moved from NOLA two years ago and many friends and in-laws still live there.

    I don’t have a working TV. It went kaput the same day that the hurricane hit.

    It would be interesting to compare how people feel about this event with Sept. 11, 2001. I didn’t feel as affected by that event. I didn’t watch a lot of TV on it (more than Katrina, though). And, I didn’t know anyone in NYC.

  6. Duh, Phil, where have you been all these years? 😉

    Have you read any of Neil Postman’s trenchant arguments against the existence of TV? (“Amusing Ourselves to Death” is perhaps the best.)

    One of his main points: TV can never rise above titillation, no matter how brainy or important the subject matter.

    So it’s no surprise if the main things that result from the massive multi-hour daily brainwashing sessions that TV provides people world-wide are (a) a false sense of being connected and (b) understanding what’s going on, and (c) a great deal of useless stress as people emote about things that are completely unrelated to them.

  7. Absolutely.

    I’ve suspected for awhile that TV is partly responsible for more and more people’s seeming to have very strong feelings about matters that they don’t really know anything about.

    On my blog front page (http://azplace.net), I keep links to CNN/MSNBC show transcripts (http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/, http://msnbc.msn.com/id/3719710/), and one can easily read a transcript for an hour long news program in just a few moments, and the information gleaned will be far less than a well written article of a quarter of that transcript length.

    But video clips on TV (and one day on the web, when we have true media quality broadband quality) convey emotional messages in much more concentrated fashion than reading articles peppered with photos. And this is why the government goes to great strides to limit this power in wartime (and now, as they are blocking media access, but we’ve already seen enough of NO/LA to have those emotional responders triggered.

  8. I think your point is a good one, but in this case I’m not sure it’s a negative one. In disaster circumstances, perhaps _only_ television can convey the scale and chaos along with the emotions it engenders. TV is poor at relating complex ideas, but the impact hurricane destruction is not complex. Certainly, people _should_ be upset about this situation, and if TV for once helps people get a more accurate impression of what’s going on, perhaps that is for the good.

  9. My perspective is that TV is good for some types of news and bad for others. Where TV truly excels is what I call “breaking news” — stuff happening *right*now*. Where TV is horrible is context, depth of understanding, understanding how events fit into the big picture, etc. Hurricane Katrina is a perfect example of this. After watching 2 days of 24-hour TV coverage, I got on the internet, and discovered that the internet completely failed at conveying any real sense of the power of the storm and the scope of the disaster. I actually believe people with no TV access just have no idea. Now that the storm has passed, TV will do a truly horrible job at explaining why the disaster response was so bad — the science of levees and hurricanes, the politics of emergency response, conflict behind the scenes between federal, state, local officials, etc etc. The internet will fill in that gap, along with other media that lack the visual power and immediacy of television. I watch little TV and almost never watch TV news, but when Katrina became a category 5 and the evacuation order went out, the first thing I did was turn on my TV to see what was going on. I think TV news is great if you approach it with the proper expectations — immediate, breaking news, with no context/understanding.

  10. Sounds plausible, but as a Today Show watcher (turn it on whilst I ready myself for work), I was MUCH more moved by Katrina than by 9/11, mainly because of the government’s slow response. I actually threw things at the TV and cursed Bush….

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