On November 21, 2003, I wrote the “Today’s Papers” column for Slate. The column is a “summary of what’s in the major U.S. newspapers,” and the big news of the day was that two truck bombs had exploded in Istanbul, Turkey, killing at least 27 people. One must post “Today’s Papers” in the early morning, so the writer edits and headlines the piece him- or herself. The headline I chose, at around 4:00 am, was “Istanbul, Not Constantly Hopeful,” a reference to the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” made famous by The Four Lads and They Might Be Giants.
Later that morning, when Slate’s staff arrived at work, they decided to rechristen the piece, changing the headline to “Turkey Troubles.” They figured that the headline I’d come up with was insensitive and flip, considering the tragedy to which it referred, and they were right. When a tragedy is at issue, it’s wise to steer clear of puns, even if you do think they’re awfully clever.
I thought of this while watching CNN’s tsunami coverage this afternoon. After a rocky start, CNN has done a decent job with its reporting about the tragedy, but the network, apparently worried that the images themselves aren’t compelling enough to hook viewers, hasn’t been able to resist trying to sum up the tragedy in slogans of three words or less. So, right now, it’s plastering “Turning the Tide” across the bottom of the screen during its tsunami coverage. CNN isn’t alone in relying on trite wordplay in its coverage of the tragedy; the Sydney Daily Telegraph, for example, ran a package called “Swept Away,” and other media outlets have couched their coverage in similar turns of phrase.
Television, of course, always seeks the easy characterization. And much of the print media world, with its embrace of simplistic storylines featuring ostensibly perfect heroes and irredeemable villains, is often worse.
But the tragedy in Southeast Asia is a great, sprawling, horrific event, one that aggressively defies our efforts to reduce it to something more digestible. It’s unavoidable that headlines and graphics necessarily reduce complex events, but pithy characterizations like “Turning the Tide,” which tries to put a positive slant on the story, implicitly makes light of its unfathomable horror and complexity.